The number of foreign tourists visiting Japan, which hit a record-high 19.73 million last year, is still surging at a rapid pace. The number has already reached 11.7 million between January and June this year, a 28.2 percent jump on the same period last year.

Facing this surprising growth in inbound tourism, 59 major bus companies have joined forces in a bid to boost business from the flood of visitors.

On July 20, the companies officially launched the Japan Bus Lines consortium, with a plan to start selling unlimited ride passes for foreign tourists that will cover as many as 100 expressway bus routes nationwide.

Starting next month, a seven-day pass will be priced at ¥20,000, and a 14-day pass at ¥28,000, much lower than the price of a Japan Rail Pass, which is popular with tourists and offers unlimited rail travel across all routes of the six Japan Railways Group firms.

The joint project started about 1½ years ago, when the Osaka-based Willar Alliance travel group contacted several other bus operators, said Shota Tachibana, a senior sales staffer at Willer Travel Inc., who now works at JBL’s secretariat.

“We found out bus operators had their own separate websites. Some of them had foreign-language versions, but others didn’t have any,” Tachibata said.

“So we proposed to expressway bus operators across the country that we should create a one-stop reservation website for foreign tourists, using a unified brand name.”

Last year, the firms jointly launched a website that allows foreign travelers to reserve expressway bus tickets online in English, Chinese or Korean: jtim.es/6co5303aeUy.

Now JBL is ready to start selling the unlimited passes on the website, with the secretariat also considering offering suggested tourist routes for customers to take, Tachibana said.

JBL aims to post sales of ¥1.5 billion in 2019 by selling tickets and passes to 375,000 foreign travelers, Tachibana said.

Currently, foreign travelers occupy only a small portion of the expressway bus market. But bus operators are preparing for a surge in foreign travelers, Tachibana said.

On a government level, and as the depreciation of the yen has helped boost foreign tourist numbers, the Cabinet led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now regards inbound tourism as a key growth industry that will help boost the still-ailing Japanese economy.

In March, it increased its target of annual foreign tourists to 60 million in 2030 from the previous goal of 20 million in 2020.

“The government is now trying to attract tourists to the countryside. It is expressway buses, rather than railways, that cover more of this area,” Tachibana said.

In general, an expressway bus ticket is much cheaper than a shinkansen fare.

In addition, JBL’s website offers many overnight bus services, which can save time and accommodation costs as well, another advantage over railways, Tachibana said.

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