The government’s new tourism strategy aims to attract 40 million visitors from abroad and have them spend ¥8 trillion a year by 2020 — both goals about twice what was achieved in 2015. It is indeed an ambitious plan that would turn Japan into one of the world’s major travel destinations. The number of inbound tourists roughly doubled over the past two years, but it can’t be taken for granted this trajectory will continue. The government should work out an action plan with concrete steps to enhance conveniences for visitors, including improved accommodations and easy access to interesting tourist spots.
When the Visit Japan Campaign was launched in 2003, inbound tourists numbered 5.2 million. The campaign set out to increase the total to 10 million in seven years. The figure reached 8.6 million in 2010 but plunged to 6.2 million the next year, when the nation was hit by the 3/11 quake, tsunami and nuclear disasters. Inbound tourism has since picked up again with a sharp increase in visitors from Asian economies as the weak yen made such excursions more affordable and the government eased visa regulations for tourists from Asia. The total topped 10 million for the first time in 2013 and surged to 19.73 million last year. Consumption by these visitors increased to ¥3.47 trillion in 2015, thanks in particular to buying sprees by Chinese visitors.
According to the Japan Tourism Agency, total tourism-related spending in 2013 hit ¥23.6 trillion, creating ripple effects to the tourism industry worth ¥48.8 trillion and 4.19 million jobs. Tourism has become one of the nation’s major industries — and a rare growth sector amid the shrinking population —and can expect further growth if tourist numbers continue to increase.
Still, this opportunity could be squandered unless Japan makes serious efforts. Currently, foreign tourists are facing accommodation shortages in major destinations such as Tokyo and Osaka, where the hotel room occupancy ratio tops 80 percent — 82.3 percent for Tokyo and 85.2 percent for Osaka, far surpassing the national average of 60.5 percent. Boosting the number of hotel rooms may not be enough to cope with the increase in demand. Ways should be explored for greater use of Japanese-style inns and rooms owned by private owners. Another problem is that capacity at both Narita and Haneda airports is expected to reach its limit in the early half of the 2020s. The government should turn its attention to local under-used airports and consider ways to increase the number of direct flights from overseas to these facilities.
A psychological barrier to welcoming foreign visitors appears to linger in certain sectors. A survey found that 35 percent of shops, restaurants and accommodation facilities would prefer not to accept foreign tourists, citing such reasons as language difficulties, bad manners by some visitors and a possible increase in customer troubles. The government should consider what help it can extend to them in overcoming such prejudices.
If the government wants to increase the number of inbound tourists, perhaps the most important thing should be devise ways to lead them to areas that so far have been off the beaten track. Most tourists are still follow the so-called golden route — visit Tokyo first, then see Mount Fuji and finally go on to Kyoto and Osaka. The government and the tourism industry should work together to develop new routes that start and end at regional airports around the country. Attracting low-coast carriers to local airports by drastically cutting landing fees is one possible step.
As part of its efforts, the government is thinking of opening government guest houses in Tokyo’s Akasaka district and in Kyoto, as well as public facilities with historical or cultural values, to the public. It will also have all 47 prefectures and half of the nation’s municipalities develop plans to maintain and get the maximum benefit out of their tourism resources.
It is unlikely that tourism based on shopping, as symbolized by Chinese tourists’ robust spending, will continue to grow at its current rate. A strategy must be devised to increase the number of repeat visitors who come to Japan for purposes other than shopping.
Another survey shows that inbound tourists want easy access to information on restaurants and bars, routes to their destinations and how to use public transport to get there. Increasing the number of tourist information centers, improving multilingual signs in train stations and bus terminals and providing more information on accommodations will be indispensable.
Human resources will also play a crucial role. The government and tourism industry need to make sure workers are properly trained to assist foreign visitors, including better language abilities.
Apart from the national government’s broad plan, local authorities and the tourism industry should set feasible goals to attract visitors from abroad and develop relevant strategies by selecting attractive local themes such as hot springs, food, history and nature. This is a task that will require careful study, insight and ingenuity.
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