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LOS ANGELES — The government plan to privatize Narita airport in 2004 is welcome news to international travelers who know what good travel service is. The plan, which also includes a halt to building new airports, upgrading existing airports and improving customer service, could go a long way toward reversing Japan’s image as one of the least tourist-friendly countries in the world.

Just a pleasant smile by airport employees would be an improvement. As it is, despite the fact that Japan is the fourth largest spender for tourist promotion in the world, it ranks only 34th in the number of overseas tourist arrivals. That’s right. According to the World Tourism Organization, Japan ranks below Tunisia in annual tourism and has almost the same number of overseas visitors as the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Morocco. Four times more tourists visit tiny Hong Kong each year than end up in Japan.

Obviously this deficit in tourism is not due to a lack of spending on tourism. It is more the result of the kind of one-way thinking that has driven bureaucratic policies at Narita airport. Consistent with government policy, tourism has been treated as a Japanese export business and all that mattered was getting Japanese tourists in and out of the airports. As a result, for every tourist that visits Japan, four Japanese go abroad.

But now with public funds drying up, and with a tourism deficit of $28.5 billion, to go along with all the other deficits Tokyo has accumulated, the bureaucrats have set the target of doubling the number of overseas tourists by 2007. The “New Welcome Japan 21 Plan,” hopefully a companion project to improving service at Narita airport, calls for a “clear image of Japan as an attractive tourist spot.”

Of course, promoting tourism alone won’t erase Tokyo’s tourism-unfriendly image. Prices for nearly everything are at least 30 percent higher than in Los Angeles or London. The train system has virtually no English or other foreign language signs or explanations. Japan is also perhaps the only country in the world where dollars can’t be used to make purchases. Even worse, currency exchange is nearly impossible, even in cosmopolitan Tokyo, except at your own hotel or a bank if you can find one that is open and has someone who can do the transaction quickly. The lack of information booths at major tourist sites is also a big problem identified by the WTO.

First impressions also count, and how people are welcomed at the airports is equally important. Over the years, there have been numerous complaints about the inefficiencies of Narita airport. It is too far from Tokyo, the runway capacity is inadequate, there is not enough docking capacity for aircraft, the bus system for unloading passengers is poorly managed and so on. From the very beginning Narita was a disaster of a plan, but like most public works projects in Japan there was no way to stop the bureaucratic process once it was set in motion.

Hopefully, with privatization and a more consumer-driven administration, the Narita Airport Authority will improve foreign tourist service. On a recent trip to Narita airport, after waiting two hours to have my own passport examined, I asked the young immigration official checking passports if he thought the immigration service was providing good service.

He responded apologetically, “Obviously not! Making pregnant women, young children and old people stand waiting in line for two hours to have their passport stamped is definitely wrong. People are so angry by the time they get to see me that I feel they hate Japan.” But the official politely added, “They don’t understand that being angry with me is useless. My superiors don’t care and they are the ones in charge.”

On that afternoon when I arrived in Narita, there were seven passport windows open, three for Japanese citizens and four for “Foreign Passports.” From 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., while I was there, there were at all times 500 “non-Japanese” waiting in line. There were 10 lines of 50 people each being served by three passport windows. Everyone waited at least two hours to have their passports examined. Children were asleep on the floor, many businessmen with friends waiting for them outside of customs were frustrated and senior citizens were clearly exhausted after a long flight.

In the area for checking passports for “Japanese Citizens” there were several long periods when there were no Japanese waiting to have their passports examined. But not once did any of the immigration officials shift over to the crowded foreigner area to assist or relieve the congestion and long waiting time. Is this bureaucratic arrogance and inefficiency? Or was it just to show foreigners how unwelcome they are? Many people I talked to in line looking at the immigration officials on the “Japanese Citizens” side of the immigration area sitting idle thought this was Japanese discrimination and racism.

To make matters worse, there was never a public announcement made about why people had to wait so long and never an apology for the inconvenience by the immigration officials when they finally stamped the passports. All these visitors to Japan got after traveling for many hours in an airplane and then standing in line for two hours was the glare of a Japanese bureaucrat as he or she stamped their passport. What a great way for Japan to make a good first impression!

It would be good if the Japanese politicians pushing tourism and customer service would take the time to visit the passport examination area of the Immigration Service at Narita Airport the next time they re-enter Japan. Instead of slipping through the VIP entrance and getting into a private car like all other government officials, they should take time to experience what foreigners visiting Japan have to go through.

According to official statistics, every day about 17,400 foreigners enter Japan through Narita Airport. That is 550,000 people a month or over 6 million foreigners a year who must suffer waiting to get their passports stamped. If every one of them has to wait as long as I did, that is 12 million hours of anger, frustration and wasted time simply because of Japanese bureaucratic incompetence.

Japan is a great country and it should be a world tourism center. Hopefully, all of the changes being considered will make that a reality.

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