20 million tourists no pipe dream

A record 13.41 million foreign tourists visited Japan in 2014, a 30 percent jump from the previous year, and the number may top 15 million in 2015. Infrastructure and tourism minister Akihiro Ota said that the goal of attracting 20 million foreign visitors annually by the time Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Olympic Games may be achievable.

But both the national and local governments as well as the tourism industry need to consider whether their efforts to make the visitors’ stay in Japan comfortable and interesting are in step with the sharp rise in the number of tourists.

Improving the impression that tourists develop when they first arrive in Japan will contribute to increasing the number of repeat visitors.

Immigration and customs personnel should be increased not only at major airports but also at local airports that accept travelers from abroad so that visitors’ waiting time will be shortened.

Along with the fall in the yen’s exchange rate in recent years, easing of visa requirements for visitors from some Southeast Asian countries and an expansion in October of the list of items exempt from the consumption tax to include cosmetics and foods are believed to have contributed to the rise in the number of foreign visitors.

Taiwanese visitors constituted the largest group with 2.83 million, a year-on-year increase of 28 percent, followed by South Koreans (2.76 million for an increase of 12 percent) and Chinese (2.41 million for an 83 percent rise).

The numbers are all record figures and the three groups account for some 60 percent of all the tourists from abroad. The Japan Tourism Agency estimates that foreign tourists spent a total of ¥2.03 trillion in 2014, with Chinese visitors spending the most at ¥558.3 billion.

These figures point to the importance of Japan securing good relations with China and South Korea at least in the field of tourism even as its political relations with them remain shaky.

Currently many Chinese visitors are from major cities in the coastal regions such as Beijing and Shanghai. More promotional efforts will be needed to attract tourists from inland areas of the country.

Retail and other businesses increasingly rely on demand from the visitors. An average foreign tourist spent 11 percent more in 2014 than in the previous year during their stay, and their total spending marked a 43 percent increase.

While the increase in shopping is a welcome economic sign, it will also be important to attract tourists to Japan’s other tourist resources.

One big problem concerning inbound tourism in Japan is the concentration of visitors in large cities like Tokyo. A typical route involves visiting Akihabara and Asakusa in Tokyo then taking a shinkansen superexpress train to Kyoto and Osaka. This concentration often causes a shortage of hotel accommodations and bus services for tourists at these destinations. Attention should be given to developing tourism resources outside of these typical routes, including hot springs, attractive features in national parks and geoparks, historical towns, and towns that offer famous cuisine.

Those in the tourism industry and in charge of developing tourism policies should not forget the basics, such as improving the foreign-language abilities of people engaged in tourism-related services, increasing multiple-language signs for tourists, making terminals for credit card payments more available at tourist destinations, expanding the areas where wireless LAN services are available, and segregating smoking areas, or even banning smoking, in restaurants.

To prevent congestion in particular areas and seasons, it may be useful to consider preparing for countries’ different vacation seasons by carrying out promotion efforts in each country that would be most effective for the needs of tourists.

  • Tokyogreen

    Speaking as an ex-long-term resident and recent returnee, I agree with the remarks in the penultimate paragraph. I have been struck again by the “un-international” nature of Tokyo as a major city. Free wifi is absolutely standard in most restaurants, coffee shops and bars (at least those catering to foreigners) in virtually every other major Asian capital city. Credit cards are also almost universally acceptable. English-speaking ability in Tokyo is poor by comparison. You can add to that the difficulty in obtaining Japanese SIM cards for overseas phones (OK, this is getting better, but is still extremely expensive). Japan certainly has a lot of catching up to do.

  • TheSandGal

    We were in Japan recently. Best vacation we ever had, and the people were so nice. We had no trouble with language anywhere we went. English speaking guides are easy to find if you want to use these, and in the major attractions (Edo museum, Matsumoto castle) they are provided free.

    And our Pururu mobile hotspot solved all our communication issues. Worked flawlessly everywhere we went where there was cell signal.

  • Tatami53

    It also might be important to put up railings at JR Shinjuku station so that people don’t plunge to their death during rush hour. And it also might be important to impress on personnel in certain stations and stores that they are going to have to be able to use some level of English and stop staring at foreigners with that “deer in headlight” look. Because bringing the tourists to Japan and them actually having a good time are two different things.