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The executive chairman of Trip.com Group Ltd., Asia’s biggest online travel agency, says he wants to see Japan and China reopen their borders to each other for leisure travel “later this year,” projecting a strong recovery in tourism demand despite the coronavirus pandemic.

A recovery in domestic travel would come first once infections start to ease, and the “next question” would be when Japan and China can reach an agreement about reciprocal travel, Co-founder and Executive Chairman James Liang in a recent video interview.

“I hope this kind of agreement can be reached later this year,” Liang said from the Chinese company’s Shanghai office. “Once the border opens, there will be a spike of outbound travel. There would be pent-up demand.”

He said travel will continue to be a “big industry,” with individual leisure travel recovering first and tours, business travel and conference-related travel taking longer.

Japan has banned visitors from 146 countries and regions, in principle. This includes China, from which 9.59 million people visited Japan in 2019, accounting for a third of all inbound travelers.

The government has started discussions with China and 15 other economies on easing travel restrictions, but business travel is expected to resume first.

Chinese tourists walk through Tokyo's Asakusa district on Feb. 1. | KYODO
Chinese tourists walk through Tokyo’s Asakusa district on Feb. 1. | KYODO

To keep customers motivated, Liang said Trip.com is promoting various hotel vouchers through digital marketing, including live web broadcasts of programs featuring popular YouTubers pitching facilities and destinations.

The vouchers are not only discounted but are fully refundable, with no cancellation fees, and have drawn strong demand from Chinese customers, showing evidence that outbound tourism is ready to recover, Liang said.

When a program on Japanese hotels and ryokan (traditional inns) was streamed live to Chinese users in mid-July, some 22,912 rooms were booked for a total of 26.19 million yuan (¥400 million), Trip.com said.

“The beauty of the pre-sale deals is that you can lock in the discount but you don’t have any risks” since vouchers are refundable, Liang said. “Japan is actually by far the most favorite destination (among Chinese)…When the border opens, they would definitely come to Japan.”

He said such livestreamed promotional programs — an hour long — can also help travelers gain deeper knowledge about their destinations while providing opportunities for hotels to pitch their charms.

“Through our broadcasts we show the properties of the hotels in very good details so the customer will learn a lot more in depth about the properties and about the destination that will increase the brand awareness among the consumers,” Liang said.

“I think in our experience, this is a very effective way to promote tourism during the recovery stage and really speeds up the recovery,” he said.

The chairman said such livestreamed programs featuring Chinese accommodation facilities and travel destinations for Japanese customers will also be aired.

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