Tourism industry tailors more services to well-heeled visitors from overseas as it looks to boost numbers and revenue

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

In 2017 a record 28.7 million foreigners visited Japan, up 19.3 percent from the previous year, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

More foreign travelers are expected to visit Japan this spring to enjoy cherry blossoms in full bloom across the nation.

Yet trying to just increase the number is not enough if Japan wants to see its economic growth driven more by tourism, said Miwako Date, president and chief executive officer of hotel operator Mori Trust Co. A key is to attract more well-to-do visitors, who are interested in having unique experiences and are capable of spending more on accommodations and food, rather than budget travelers who tend to focus on shopping, Date said in an interview with The Japan Times. “People today focus too much on building new budget services,” she said. “This doesn’t help the government to achieve its goal.”

Besides the goal of boosting the number of foreign visitors to Japan — 40 million by 2020 and 60 million by 2030 — the government hopes their spending will reach ¥8 trillion by 2020 and ¥15 trillion by 2030.

Spending by foreign visitors in Japan hit a record ¥4.4 trillion last year, a 17.8 percent rise from 2016, according to the Japan Tourism Agency. By category, shopping amounted to ¥1.64 trillion, accounting for 37.1 percent of the total expenditures, followed by ¥1.25 trillion for accommodations (28.2 percent), ¥886 billion for eating and drinking (20.1 percent), and ¥487 billion for transportation (11 percent), according to the agency.

Retail spending by Chinese travelers was by far the largest, at ¥878 billion — more than half of the total shopping expenditures.

“It’s clear this growth model doesn’t last long, especially when more people today can buy many things online without even coming to Japan,” Date said.

In a bid to diversify business opportunities for Japan’s tourism industry, the agency recently launched a new online ad campaign promoting the nation’s nature and culture-rich locations that “exist off the beaten tourist path.”

The campaign is particularly aimed at potential visitors from European and other developed countries. “To achieve our 2020 and 2030 goals, it’s crucial for Japan to gain more people from these areas who have relatively high income standards,” Japan Tourism Agency chief Akihiko Tamura said during a ceremony last month to launch the campaign. “Japan last year attracted over 3 million visitors from outside Asia, particularly from Europe, North America and Oceania, for the first time. But we are not satisfied with this number,” Tamura said. “People know Japan is blessed with a unique culture,” he said. “But when it comes to traveling, people often think Japan is a boring country only with Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms and temples, which are not worth their money and time to visit.

“We need to break this image,” he said. “This is a major challenge for Japan as we try to advance as a tourism-based country not only in terms of number of visitors but also in terms of quality.” The travel activities featured in the campaign include sake-tasting at a brewery that dates back more than 850 years in Ibaraki Prefecture, and hang-glider flights over sand dunes in Tottori Prefecture.

Date of Mori Trust, which operates 22 hotels and resort facilities in Japan, said it is important to understand what affluent visitors want and provide appropriate services.

“They already have plenty of assets. So they are craving new experiences in which they can satisfy their five senses while staying away from the ordinary,” she said, noting that IT billionaires in particular are less interested in “showing off their economic status by staying at a plush hotel full of marble and glittering gold.”

Amid the increasing inbound tourist arrivals, Mori Trust plans to open 17 new hotels, including facilities at the Hakuba ski resort in Nagano Prefecture and near the popular folk village Hida Takayama in Gifu Prefecture.

“Many (wealthy) travelers actually want to visit rural areas outside Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. But they often feel there are not enough hotels there,” Date said. “Having them stay longer helps not only our business but also local economies.”

Also important is to offer tailor-made services to meet their various needs, said Makoto Mizuno, general manager at JTB Corp.’s outlet specializing in luxury tours in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza shopping district.

Since opening the outlet, Royal Road Ginza, in 2003, Mizuno said about 90 percent of customers have been Japanese seniors.

But he said the major travel agency is trying to attract more foreign customers after extending the service’s scope in 2011 to those who wish to plan “one-and-only” leisure trips in Japan.

“One foreign customer asked us to make a plan to walk all the way from Narita (International Airport) to Mount Fuji, without setting any price limit,” said Naoko Yamashita, chief manager at Royal Road Ginza, although the distance between them is about 200 kilometers. “What some foreigners want may not necessarily be the same as wealthy Japanese customers,” Yamashita said.