The annual number of foreign travelers to Japan topped 10 million for the first time in 2013. Still, Japan continues to lag far behind other Asian countries as a tourist destination, and much more needs to be done to turn international tourism into one of the nation’s growth industries.

When a couple from Thailand arriving at Narita airport on Dec. 20 marked the landmark figure, transport minister Akihiro Ota said Japan will aim to increase the number to 20 million by the time Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympic Games in 2020. The government also has a longer-term target of welcoming 30 million foreign travelers by 2030.

Since the setbacks from the 2008-09 global recession and the March 2011 disasters in Japan, the increase in travelers from overseas has come on the back of growing individual wealth in emerging economies, greater flight capacity to Japan made possible by low-cost carriers and the yen’s depreciation, which has made Japan a less expensive destination.

Japan also has eased visa requirements on visitors from some Southeast Asian countries, including a visa waiver for those from Thailand and Malaysia.

International tourists to the whole of Asia is forecast to increase 5 percent each year — higher than the global average — but Japan trails behind many other Asian countries. China had 50 million visitors from overseas in 2012. Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong each drew around 20 million tourists, and visitors to South Korea topped 10 million in the same year.

One characteristic of the tourism in Japan is that Tokyo is overwhelmingly the most popular destination for foreign tourists. Typical tours take overseas visitors to popular destinations in Tokyo such as Akihabara and Asakusa. Some of them also choose to visit Mount Fuji or make a Shinkansen trip to Kyoto or Osaka. New travel routes need to be developed that offer more options than these typical destinations.

One hitch to the Tokyo-centric tours in Japan is the limited capacity of airports in areas around the capital. Additional increases in the number of foreign visitors could exceed the capacity of Haneda and Narita airports to handle them. To avoid such a situation, efforts need to be made to increase the number of tourist arrivals in other parts of Japan.

For example, prefectures and businesses in the Chubu and Hokuriku regions are working to promote tours that arrive at Chubu International Airport and travel through areas of central Japan. Similar efforts are afoot in Tohoku and the Seto Inland Sea areas.

Hokkaido is a popular winter destination for visitors from Australia and Taiwan, while Kyushu welcomes large numbers of tourists from South Korea.

Efforts to lure visitors to regions based on regional characteristics will be useful. Sufficient manpower will also be needed to expedite customs, immigration and quarantine procedures for smooth entry/departures of foreign tourists at local airports in rural areas.

Japan has a lot to offer foreign visitors that other countries don’t have, but it needs to improve the environment so that tourists from abroad feel more welcome here. Greater efforts must be made to remove language barriers. Work to add not only English but also Chinese and Korean translations to road and railway signs will need to be expanded to wider parts of the country. In addition, wireless local area networks must be expanded so that tourists can easily use their computers and other digital devices to gather more information on places to visit. If Japan is really serious about drawing more foreign visitors, it has a lot more to do.

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