About 20 minutes by car from Wakayamashi Station, across a bridge to a reclaimed island, lies Wakayama Marina City and the Porto Europa theme park. Its faux Spanish, Italian, and French buildings and European-style street designs give visitors the impression of being on a slightly dilapidated film set.

Strolling around the area are a few Japanese- and Chinese-speaking visitors enjoying the scenery, waiting to get on a waterslide or shopping in the gift shop, all the way snapping photos.

“It’s free, has a nice atmosphere and it’s not really all that crowded,” said Akemi Hoshino, 34, a Wakayama resident visiting the park with a friend.

But if Wakayama gets its way, Porto Europa and the entire Wakayama Marina City island will become very hectic and crowded.

For adjacent to Porto Europa is the location of what the Wakayama Prefectural Government hopes will be an integrated resort (IR) complex housing a casino. The plan is to draw not only those who love to gamble, but also organizations from Japan and abroad who want to hold their conferences and conventions here during the day and hit the casino or the planned adjacent shopping centers, theaters and restaurants at night.

An integrated resort is Wakayama’s attempt to become competitive in the fast-growing area of what has been called MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) tourism. But while the term is still used in Japan, it’s now increasingly referred to simply as the “meetings industry.”

Whatever the name, the concept is the same — the strategic, long-term promotion of facilities and local amenities to attract large groups of often high-end professionals who will come by the thousands, filling local hotels and spending money to boost the local economy.

Municipalities such as Wakayama want to make sure that the ongoing nationwide inbound tourism boom of the past several years will benefit the local economy in the years to come.

Many local governments believe hosting international meetings, conferences and exhibitions is the way to do that, and Wakayama is now competing for an international casino resort complex for MICE events with neighboring Osaka.

But Wakayama Prefecture officials are quick to distinguish the two proposals.

“Osaka is proposing an urban-style integrated resort complex, whereas we’re proposing more of a resort-style complex, where the atmosphere is more relaxed and which would likely be smaller in scale than the Osaka plan,” said Naohiro Kusumi, director of the prefecture’s IR Promotions Office.

As outlined by the prefecture, the promotion strategy involves trying to attract conventioneers by touting marine sports activities in Wakayama Bay and visits to local hot spring resorts or Mount Koya while they are on business for an event at Wakayama Marina City.

But these plans revolve around the as yet unanswered question of whether Wakayama will be awarded one of only three integrated casino resort licenses initially set to be given out by the central government. And the strongest candidate is neighboring Osaka, which also sees an integrated resort as a way to position itself as a center for international meetings and events.

Osaka’s strategy

It’s the opening day of a trade fair at Intex Osaka, a facility for such events and conventions near the Osaka waterfront area, not far from two major train lines and a couple of luxury hotels. Thousands of people are gathered in its cavernous halls, checking out various booths.

“It’s an older complex but it’s really spacious. You don’t have a lot of great restaurants or nighttime entertainment close by, but as a place for businesses to exhibit their wares, it’s fine,” said Takashi Ito, an Osaka trading firm employee who said he’s been to Intex a few times.

In just over two months’ time, Intex Osaka will be the site of the Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit.

For Osaka’s leaders, the summit is less about international political and economic issues and more about demonstrating it can successfully host what might be called the mother of all MICE events — 30,000 out-of-town guests ranging from U.S. President Donald Trump to Chinese President Xi Jinping, their entourages, and members of the international media, all with their own needs, conditions, demands and requests that have to be met before and during the summit.

“A successful G20 summit will help raise Osaka’s international profile, helping attract more international convention interest,” newly elected Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui said earlier this month.

The centerpiece for Osaka’s future MICE strategy, however, is not Intex Osaka. It’s an integrated casino resort on Yumeshima, also in Osaka’s waterfront district.

Casino industry experts and local business leaders are confident the city will be one of the first three that get a license from the central government to operate an integrated casino resort.

Therefore, between Intex Osaka, an IR resort on Yumeshima and the Osaka International Convention Center in the northern part of the city, as well as a large concentration of luxury hotels and extensive railway connections, Osaka officials believe they have most of the necessary infrastructure to compete with other regions for MICE business.

Tougher competition

Osaka may be confident it can be a major player in the MICE industry. But the competition is tough, and growing tougher.

Incentives to regions, including financial assistance, from the central government for attracting meetings and conventions are being offered. Other parts of Japan, especially Nagasaki and the city of Tomakomai in Hokkaido, are also moving forward with integrated casino resort proposals in the hope of attracting more MICE business.

The latest Japan National Tourism Organization figures show that in 2017 there were 3,313 international conferences nationwide, up 6.2 percent from the previous year and well above the nearly 2,100 conferences in 2008. Meanwhile, the total number of conference participants in 2017 was around 1.73 million, of which about 187,000 were non-Japanese.

A breakdown of cities showed that the largest number of international conferences took place in Tokyo’s 23 wards (608), followed by Kobe (405), Kyoto (306), Fukuoka (296) and Nagoya (183). Osaka finished in seventh place (139) behind Yokohama (176), and Sapporo rounded out the top 10 (116). Neither Nagasaki nor Wakayama were in the top 30.

Cities and regions attempting to attract MICE business also need to distinguish themselves from the competition by promoting their local cultural attractions, such as the sea and mountains of Wakayama, the streets of Osaka and the natural beauty of Hokkaido.

But what is more critical to attracting MICE business is a well-developed local service industry that includes world-class hotels and highly trained employees with foreign-language skills.

That’s less of an issue in large urban areas such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, where there are plenty of people, both Japanese and non-Japanese, who are fluent in more than one language. In smaller cities and regions, a lack of such talent means the difference between a good reputation in and out of Japan as a place to hold international conventions and exhibitions, or a bad one.

In Wakayama, prefectural officials say that if an integrated resort is realized, there will be enough employees fluent in English and other languages to handle them. Of course, Wakayama has the advantage of being able to draw on a younger labor pool from neighboring Osaka Prefecture.

But other regions farther away from major urban areas hoping for more MICE business may find that, even though they have drawn up detailed proposals and a promotion strategy to win more international conventions, without access to enough workers who are bilingual, their best laid plans of MICE may go astray.

Beyond Tokyo is a series that focuses on regional developments and events of national importance elsewhere in Japan.

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