National

Fruit-picking tours luring more visitors to Japan

by Takehiro Higashi

Kyodo

Tourist farms across the country are attracting more visitors who have placed fruit-picking high on their itineraries as the global reputation of Japanese fruit grows.

With more tourists selecting cultural experiences over material goods, a number of companies have embraced farm tourism, and tourist farms are becoming can’t-miss destinations, especially outside major cities.

Thanks to the internet, the reputations of farmers who invest in and promote their farms are spreading beyond borders.

Thammaporn Rattanatan of Thailand made a visit to a strawberry farm in Chikushino, Fukuoka Prefecture, in late May. Describing the fruit as “sweet and fresh,” she was amazed by the price difference.

“These fruits are high-end products in Thailand but they’re reasonable here,” she said.

While high in quality, Japanese strawberries become expensive in Thailand because of logistical costs. This makes the farm’s 40-minute, all-you-can-eat strawberry picking experience for ¥1,900 an attractive offer for many visitors.

Between November 2017 and May 2018, about 4,200 travelers, 1.5 times more than two years ago, visited the Chikushino strawberry farm, backed by positive reviews on Facebook. The farm is a 30-minute drive from Fukuoka Airport.

It opened a cake shop in February 2017 and plans to offer a blueberry-picking program this summer as part of a plan to attract visitors throughout the year.

Another fruit farm further south in neighboring Kumamoto Prefecture attracts about 10,000 people a year from abroad interested in its grapes and apples.

“It is important to broadcast our existence as well as the attention we pay to the quality of our fruits,” said Masaaki Maeda, head of Kichijien farm, who pitches his business to Taiwanese travel agencies and other companies.

Having formed alliances with other Kumamoto farms and with Norinchukin Bank, the national financier for agriculture, fishery and forestry cooperatives, Kichijien also invites overseas bloggers and reporters to take tours.

According to the Japan Tourism Agency, visitors to Japan spent ¥143.9 billion on leisure activities in 2017, more than four times the amount spent four years ago.

But since the ratio of leisure spending to total travel expenses was lower than equivalent data from Europe and the United States, the public and private sectors in Japan see even greater potential for growth.

J&J Business Development, a joint venture between credit card company JCB Co. and travel agency JTB Corp., opened a website called Japan Fruits (the-way-of-japan.com/fruits) last year that lists some 780 farms and their products based on the results of a survey.

The Japan Shopping Tourism Organization conducted the survey in 2015, inquiring about souvenirs considered desirable from Japan.

Fruit ranked second among respondents in Hong Kong and Thailand behind Japanese-style sweets, and third in other parts of Asia, such as Malaysia.

But the survey also revealed that overseas consumers did not know much about the varieties being harvested, or where and in which seasons.

J&J Business Development plans to expand the reservation and online shopping functions of the site.

Nippon Travel Agency Co. opened an apple orchard last year in Iiyama, Nagano Prefecture, where English tour guides are regularly stationed. Since the orchard has received rave reviews, it will increase the variety of apples so visitors can eat and compare them.

In the meantime, Japan Airlines Co. plans to open a facility that allows visitors to experience the harvesting of strawberries and sweet potatoes in 2020 through a new agricultural company.

According to a survey by the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Ministry in fiscal 2015, the average annual sales of 6,700 nationwide businesses that operate tourist farms were relatively small at ¥5.64 million, but some experts think the farms could help revitalize rural economies.

“Agriculture is an effective means for rural areas to exhibit a difference with urban areas in terms of tourism,” said Chizu Hori, senior research officer at the Mizuho Research Institute.

“Coordination with other local farms and companies as well as municipalities will be key” to attracting more visitors, Hori said.