Japan’s tourism strategies have gone beyond just promoting hospitality and have put the nation on track to achieve global standards, a British-born cultural heritage expert said.
The Japanese tourism industry had been somewhat complacent and self-centered, but it is evolving into a world-class business, David Atkinson, 50, chairman and president of Tokyo-based heritage restoration firm Konishi Decorative Arts and Crafts Co. and a former Goldman Sachs bank analyst, said in an interview with The Japan Times last month.
In the wake of increasing overseas visitors, the government in March set a new goal of attracting 40 million visitors by 2020 and 60 million by 2030.
It also set an economic goal — ¥8 trillion in spending by overseas tourists by 2020 and ¥15 trillion by 2030 — for the first time, aiming to develop tourism as a “key industry” to underpin Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to achieve ¥600 trillion in gross domestic product.
To achieve these goals, the government also revealed measures to bolster tourism, such as boosting restoration of the nation’s cultural assets and providing more easy-to-follow multilingual guides to make tourism venues more “exploitable.”
Other measures include updating old restrictions such as those on minpaku (private stay) businesses, reaching out to attract more tourists from Europe, the United States and Australia, and providing funds to revive struggling hot springs resorts.
But “there is no mention about omotenashi (hospitality) any more,” said Atkinson, who sat on a government panel that compiled the tourism measures.
In an interview with The Japan Times in December 2014, Atkinson noted that Japanese had long misunderstood omotenashi to mean forcing Japanese hospitality and behavioral customs on foreign visitors who had different values.
But with practical measures and concrete economic targets set by the government, Atkinson said Japan’s business strategies were reaching a level on par with other tourism-focused countries.
“Tourism cannot be driven only by idealism . . . it needs to be viewed as a business that contributes to GDP,” he said.
The change in the level of commitment can be seen in the budget allocation for tourism-related policies, Atkinson said. For fiscal 2016, the government doubled the tourism agency’s budget to ¥20 billion — a third more than the ¥14.2 billion requested by the agency — in what Atkinson said was an “extremely exceptional” outlay.
If the strategies are pursued, Japan can easily reach the 40 million visitor goal, as it already has abundant resources to attract tourists, Atkinson said.
“Take Thailand for example. It had some 30 million visitors annually, although most of the country is hot throughout the year . . . and cultural resources are not so rich,” he said. “Japan, on the other hand, is blessed with unique tourism resources in many different cities, and visitors can experience weather ranging from the tropical to the cold of Hokkaido.”
In 2015, Japan welcomed a record 19.73 million foreign visitors — just a few shy of the previous 2020 target of 20 million arrivals.
To raise that number even further, Atkinson said it was crucial to attract more visitors from the United States, Europe and Australia outside of the business visits already generated from those nations.
Of 19.73 million visitors last year, Chinese accounted for the largest segment, at 4.99 million, followed by 4 million South Koreans, 3.68 million Taiwanese and 1.52 million from Hong Kong, according to Japan National Tourism Organization data.
In the same survey, tourists from China increased the most, more than double their numbers in the previous year. This was followed by a 64.6 percent increase in visitors from Hong Kong and a 49.2 percent rise in Vietnamese.
However, although the number of visitors from the U.S. topped a record 1 million last year, the increase was only 15.9 percent from the previous year. Visitors from the U.K. rose by 17.5 percent and Australians increased by 24.3 percent.
Asked if Japan depended too much on tourists from China, Atkinson said the Chinese tourism boom did not apply only to Japan but was a global trend.
“Japan had almost 5 million arrivals from China (in 2015), but Thailand had some 7 million visitors (from China). . . . It’s not surprising if visitors from China increased even more,” he said, adding that the high dependency on Chinese tourists would be eased eventually if the number of visitors from other countries increased.
With the growth strategy fixed, the next challenge is to create a viable mass tourism market, Atkinson said.
Some tourism industry people have a conventional mindset and oppose change because they fear a shift in the power balance, Atkinson said.
“Tourism can be a main pillar of Japan’s economic growth that stands on its own merit,” he said.
“It is already a large industry worldwide, and Japan has potential. It just depends on whether Japan can shed its stagnation.”
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