Kanagawa Prefecture will test a free smartphone rental service for foreign tourists from mid-February to the end of March as the country readies itself for an expected influx of overseas visitors in the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The prefecture plans to provide unlimited 4G network service access through 300 smartphones it will make available at five tourist information centers located in Yokohama, Kamakura and Hakone. The testing will be carried out in cooperation with Handy Japan Co. — a smartphone networking company that provides services to around a quarter of the nation’s hotels.

Foreign visitors to Kanagawa can check out the smartphones for free for up to three days and will have unlimited access to the internet, free international and domestic calls, and local tourist information available in 15 languages, including English and Chinese.

“While Kanagawa Prefecture has been grappling with improving internet network services by subsidizing the projects, it has not been of much use for foreign tourists since they have to search for Wi-Fi spots. Tourists also face some technical difficulties as each Wi-Fi service has a different way of signing up,” said Mari Kuroda, an international tourism official for the prefecture. “We came up with this service with the goal of enabling foreign tourists to enjoy their trips without any internet trouble.”

Besides providing a better network environment, Kanagawa’s secondary goal behind offering the free service is to gather information on the routes foreign visitors choose by using the GPS functions in the phones to track their movements.

“We don’t have data on the types of transportation systems foreign travelers in Kanagawa frequently use. There has been no way to figure out all of the popular spots foreign tourists like, with some remaining undiscovered by tourism companies,” said Kuroda. “This service will enable us to learn such things, as well as know what kinds of promotions would appeal to visitors.”

All the collected data will be analyzed by Handy Japan and be utilized solely for inbound marketing and promotional purposes in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Asked about privacy concerns regarding the collection of such data on foreign tourists, Kuroda said that only those who agreed to share their route data will be able to use the service.

Of the 28.6 million foreign visitors to Japan in 2017, an estimated 8.5 percent (2.44 million) have traveled to Kanagawa Prefecture, according to statistics compiled by the prefectural government based on figures provided from the Japan National Travel Organization.

Kanagawa failed to meet its goal of 2.51 million foreign visitors in 2017, despite there being many well-known tourist spots in the prefecture.

“If the test results show this service has merit, we will increase the number of smartphones available in each location and also expand the service area,” Kuroda said.

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