Japan on the road to 20 million visitors

June 16, 2015


Ryoichi Matsuyama, President of the Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO), and Graham Davis, Head of BCCJ Events, and BCCJ Global Sporting Events

Japan is currently riding a wave of inbound tourism. According to the Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO), the number of international visitors in February 2015 increased by 57.6% year on year, to 1,387,000 - delivering the most successful February on record. In 2014, the number of overseas tourists rose to 13 million, a 29% increase on the previous year. 2015 also promises to be a record-breaker, with numbers up 44% so far. And there is more to come.

International demand and interest, accompanied by a weak yen, means that Asia, North America and Europe are sending visitors in higher numbers than ever before. 

In response, the scope of Japan's offering across the market and the country is changing. Hotels, ryokans, guest houses, as well as tour operators and specialist providers, look to increase activity and keep pace. 

A man very much at the centre of the action is Ryoichi Matsuyama, President of the Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO).

Speaking at a BCCJ luncheon, "Destination: Japan" on June 9, Matsuyama outlined the strategies underpinning the nation's exceptional tourism growth - rebounded since the disasters of 3/11 - as well as his organisation's future plans.

Pointing to the changing nature of tourism marketing in a digital age, Matsuyama raised chuckles in the audience by acknowledging that one photograph of Mt Fuji, featuring cherry blossoms and a pagoda in the foreground, has led to increased interest in Yamanashi prefecture. Taken by a Thai tourist off the beaten track, the photo was shared on social media and inspired a new wave of visitors to the area. "A trend is that tourism is becoming more individual. Word of mouth marketing is becoming more important and SNS (social networking sites) are very influential."

He went on to identify more strategic reasons for Japan's tourism surge.

The weaker yen is one key driver with money going "around one third further" for British tourists than it did just a few years ago. But other factors are at play, Matsuyama said. While post-war Japan focused on its manufacturing industry as an economic driver, more recent governments have realised that tourism can bring a huge boost to the economy. "Before, tourism was just seen as being about sight-seeing. In 2003, during Koizumi's time as prime minister, tourism began to be seen as industry. Now Abe's administration really understands and is promoting tourism as one of the key industries for Japan."

Given the recent influx of visitors, especially from China and South East Asia, Japan's ambitious target of reaching 20 million visitors by 2020 - the year Tokyo hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games - looks less daunting to Matsuyama and his team than it did when it was announced two years ago. But there is still work to be done - not only in increasing visitor numbers but in influencing their destination choices within Japan.

"Japan has a strong brand image. We were named as number one brand in the world overall, and in terms of tourism we came second. We have the right image to encourage tourism but actually in terms of visitor numbers we are 22nd in the world and 7th in Asia. There is definitely a perception gap. People think of Japan as somewhere they would like to visit one day, but they think: it's going to be expensive, it's too far away and there is a language problem. This is why incoming tourism numbers are not as high as the brand image might initially suggest."

JNTO has six strategies designed to encourage visits to reach 20 million: leverage the draw of Tokyo 2020; expand the inbound tourist market; simplify the visa process for tourists; cultivate regional hidden gems; promote Japan as a location for conferences and business travel - and as a welcoming place for international visitors.

"We have made it easier for visitors to avoid paying the 8% consumption tax on what they buy when they visit Japan", Matsuyama reminded the audience. "In other countries this duty-free system has to be done at the airport, but here there are now 18,000 shops where tax free shoppping is possible. In terms of costs, we'd like tourists to think "affordable Japan". The cost for tourists when they arrive, is actually only 2/3 of the costs in London."

Efforts to expand wifi access are also part of the JNTO package for welcoming travellers. "Three years ago, people in Japan would say 'what is wifi?' because we all used our phones to access the internet. Now we know wifi is the most important thing for ensuring the comfort of international travelers. Free wifi also helps overcome the language barrier and it allows free promotion of the country being visited. For example, if a tourist takes a photo in a spot with wifi they can share it immediately."

UK-Japan bilateral tourism numbers have become more equal in recent years, however, the UK also experiences a gap between the attractiveness of its image and the number of visitors it attracts in reality. Britain is often named as the fifth or sixth most popular country that Japanese tourists want to visit, but falls outside the top 20 when it comes to places they actually go.

VisitBritain is currently trying to steer Japanese visitors away from the "Golden Route" - London, Cotswolds, Lake District, Edinburgh. JNTO has similar plans for visitors coming to Japan. "We want people to go beyond Tokyo and Kyoto and diversify, for example, we can promote skiing and snowboarding in Japan. As you may know, Japan has very good powder snow."

The UK is still enjoying the after-effects of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, and Matsuyama said it was hoped Japan could benefit in the same way from 2020. "Tokyo hosting the Olympic games in 1964 was a new epoch-making era for Japan. It was a reincarnation and brought a sense of national pride to the Japanese people."

In a Q&A session, BCCJ members pointed to the a lack of licensed English-speaking tour guides in Japan due to the difficulty of the process of becoming qualified (an examination with a low pass rate). It was suggested this could lead to an increase in illegal guides. Loosening restrictions and allowing more people to qualify as guides, particularly non-Japanese guides, using their native language, to allow supply to meet demand. Existing licensed guides have been reluctant to accept a relaxing of the process. Matsuyama said while there was a need for guides, the system was designed to ensure guides were high quality. 

A lack of hotel rooms was also a concern for members, who suggested it was already difficult to make a last-minute booking in central Tokyo due to a 90% or higher occupancy rate in large hotels. Guests said they would like to see land owners encouraged to build hotels as opposed to office blocks. Short-lets by private owners, such as those faciliated by the Airbnb website should be permitted and encouraged. They also suggested it should be made easier for tourists to visit ryokans (traditional Japanese hotels). 

Matsuyama said JNTO was encouraging ryokan owners to welcome international guests. "Ryokan's are one of the treasures of Japan but occupancy could be said to sit at around 50%." He said that countryside ryokan owners were sometimes shy and wary of foreigners, and so efforts were being made to change their mindset.

Much of the hospitality trade areas outside the usual tourist routes are sustained by high numbers of domestic tourism. Just 6% of tourists in Japan are from overseas, in comparison to France where the figure is 34% and to Korea where it is 47%.

The challenge for Japan ahead of Tokyo 2020 will be to make it easier for non-Japanese visitors to enjoy the less-known parts of the country. Matsuyama said his own recommendation for a hidden treasure in Tokyo was the Nezu area due to its traditional feel. 

Matsuyama also confided that he was very familiar with the UK after spending seven years based in London and travelling far and wide around the country, including to hidden gems such as the Shetland Isles.

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To see photos of this event, see the BCCJ Flickr page