Tourists trading in their Japan guidebooks for Instagram

by Won Jae Ko

Bloomberg

Tourism is booming in Japan, but a growing number of visitors are ditching their guidebooks for an app best known for celebrity snapshots and images of food: Instagram.

The social photo-sharing service is proving to be especially popular among those seeking destinations off the beaten track. Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture, saw more than 1 million visitors in 2017, a thirty-sixfold increase in three years.

After CNN profiled the town as one of “Japan’s 31 most beautiful places,” postings of Motonosumi-Inari Shrine started to flood Instagram.

The country has proven to be one of Instagram’s most active markets, with the number of users more than doubling to more than 20 million in the past two years. People are increasingly turning to the Facebook Inc.-owned platform to decide what to eat, wear and travel. There’s even a phrase — “Insta-bae,” meaning “Instagram-worthy” — that entered the Japanese lexicon to become the country’s top buzzword last year.

“Instagram is different from other social media because users are the ones taking the initiative to post and spread pictures, not the local municipalities,” says Kazukiyo Yonemura of Full Speed Inc., a marketing firm.

Municipal officials in Nagato said they were astonished to see people of all ages visiting the city’s mountains to get a shot of its picturesque shrine. The flood of visitors soon led to four-hour long traffic jams. “We widened roads, built toilets and increased parking from 24 to more than 100 spaces this April,” said Erika Watanabe of the city’s tourism division.

And there were clear signs that many of the visitors were coming from overseas. The shrine found 27 foreign currencies in its offertory box. Foreign travelers are turning to Instagram instead of guidebooks to seek out experiences, according to Koki Miyashita of Samurai Meetups, a nonprofit organization that specializes in tourism. “The style of traveling is changing as they want their trip to be original,” he said.

Instagram collaborated with the Japan National Tourism Organization last year in introducing #UnknownJapan, a hashtag that led to more than 5 million foreign visitors sharing posts, according to Ryoko Ichimura, a spokeswoman for Instagram in Japan.

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According to the Japan Tourism Agency, foreign tourist spending has quadrupled since 2010, to an average ¥150,000 per person. The number of visitors from abroad reached a record last year, at 28.7 million people, a figure that’s likely to increase in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

At least one prominent Nagato native is happy with the town’s sudden popularity: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose family hails from the city. “Demand for travel is shifting from shopping to experiences, and this is great opportunity for local regions,” he said.