Among these was Tokyo Way (www.tokyoway.jp), founded by American entrepreneur, Carl Kay, who has been living in Japan for 13 years. For Tokyo travelers, whom I personally sent him, Carl curated a day featuring: a Shingon fire ceremony; a local festival at Nezu shrine; a miso bar, where you taste and choose your favorite miso and they make miso soup for you; and a ceramics gallery in an almost hidden, historic, traditional machiya-style building. Another company was Japan Wonder Travel (www.japanwondertravel.com), which offers both a 3.5 hour Tsukiji Fish Market morning “FooDrink” tour and a 4.5 hour, 2 am-6:30 am, Tsukiji Tuna Auction experience (max 6 people). Anabuki Travel (www.anabukitravel.jp/shikoku88/en) focuses mainly on pilgrimage treks and inn to inn stays on Shikoku (Japan’s smallest main island) and lesser islands and areas in the Inland Sea. There was also a new section for online companies. Here I found GoVoyagin (www.govoyagin.com). This Japan based OTA, invested in by Japan’s largest internet company Rakuten, is both a consolidator of unique travel products and a content creator. When I asked what they thought their most unique travel product was, they recommended a day trip from Nagoya or Kyoto to Seki, city in Gifu Prefecture where travelers, accompanied by a guide/translator, can make their own samurai knife with a certified swordsmith! All these companies provide travel agent net rates when agents sign up with them.
I learned that, once again, Japan has created new regional marketing groups to try and bring travelers to the more remote areas of the country. In central Japan they formed the Shoryudo or “Soaring Dragon” route - named for the shape of the area that encompasses nine prefectures, including: Shizuoka, Aichi, Mie, Shiga, Gifu, Nagano, Fukui, Ishikawa and Toyama. For independent travelers they announced: (1) a new official Central Japan Travel Guide Website in English with detailed downloadable maps (http://en.go-centraljapan.jp) (2) a multi-lingual app for iPhone and Android called Navigate Shoryudo (http://navigate-shoryudo.com), (3) a downloadable “Shoryudo Welcome Card,” for shop discounts and special gifts (http://bit.ly/2djOldv), and (4) new 3-day and 5-day Shoryudo highway bus passes (www.meitetsu.co.jp/eng/ticket-info/shoryudo.html). Additionally, tour companies, such as GoVoyagin, are now offering special interest Shoryudo route group tours.
Today, Japan tourism is truly thriving. In looking at the most recent inbound tourism numbers, you would hardly believe that there was a devastating earthquake and tsunami 5 1/2 years ago that brought tourism to a standstill. In 2011, only five million international tourists visited Japan, but in 2015, Japan welcomed 19.7 million foreign visitors. In fact, for the first time in 45 years, with only 16.2 million Japanese outbound tourists, there were more international travelers who came to Japan than there were Japanese tourists who traveled overseas.
Furthermore, Japan’s 2016 inbound numbers are projected to substantially surpass even the 2015 levels. Already, the January through July figures show a 27% increase in international tourism arrivals compared to the same period in 2015. And, although the majority of tourists are coming from nearby North Asian countries, the USA is the number 1 non-Asian feeder market. In 2015, nearly 5 million inbound travelers came from China, 4 million from South Korea, 3.68 million from Taiwan, 1.5 million from Hong Kong, and 1.033 million came from the USA. This trajectory is continuing despite the fact that the yen has risen over 20% in relation to the US dollar during 2016 alone. (As of October 15, 2016, one dollar equals less than 100 yen.)
According to Mamoru Kobori, Executive Vice President of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), the reasons for the increase in tourist arrivals are the following: (1) Increasing interest in Japan as a travel destination. (2) Government initiatives, including: (a) exemption and relaxation of visa requirements (does not apply to USA, where visas are not required for stays fewer than 90 days), (b) expansion of tax-free shopping, and (c) continuous promotion by JNTO. (3) The growth of the middle and upper income classes in Asia. (4) A team effort, at all levels (public and private) to increase foreign visitors. (5) The expansion of flight and cruise networks.
The dramatic increase in cruise ship arrivals is worth mentioning specifically. In 2013, 174 cruise ships called on Japan, bringing around 20,000 visitors. In 2014 this number had increased to 416, bringing around 50,000 visitors. However, by 2016 there were 1,116 cruise arrivals at Japan’s shores bringing over 110,000 visitors. Japan may be dreaming, but they would like to increase the number of cruise ship arrivals to 5,000 by 2020, the year that Japan hosts the Summer Olympic Games. Kyushu (Japan’s southern-most main island) and Okinawa (another 1 1/2 hour flight south of Fukuoka) are especially hot destinations for cruise ships. In 2014, ships called on: Nagasaki 70 times, Hakata (for Fukuoka) 99 times, and Naha (for Okinawa) 68 times. By 2015, these numbers had respectively grown to 128, 245, and 105 callings.
Of course, as Japan meets its annual tourism goals, new targets are set. The nearly 20 million foreign visitors in 2015 spent US $34 billion. For 2020, the goal is 40 million foreign visitors spending US $80 billion, and for 2030, 60 million foreign visitors spending US $150 billion. New tourism policies have also been set. These include: (1) directing tourism monetary resources toward regional revitalization, especially in Tohoku (the northeastern region of Japan still recovering from the earthquake/tsunami of 2011), but other areas as well (see below), (2) viewing the tourism industry as a new economic pillar, and (3) improving international travel-friendly infrastructure (see strategy below).
Three Key Strategies
JNTO plans to improve marketing efforts through big data research and analysis. They have/are opening seven new overseas offices in: Delhi, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, Madrid, Manila, Moscow, and Rome. They are now Distributing video materials to more than 750 media outlets in 110 countries via the AP and Reuter’s news wires.
Vitalizing local economies through inbound tourism: This includes (1) a destination campaign for the Tohoku region, still rebuilding from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (2) Diversifying tourist destinations and minimizing seasonal gaps. This includes the promotion of new sightseeing routes, such as the Shoryudo region mentioned earlier, and the launch of a new online guide for sports recreational activities: www.jnto.go.jp/eng/attractions/rest/sports (3) Utilizing mega sporting events: Japan will host the Rugby World Cup in 12 cities in 2019, the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020, and the World Masters Games in Kansai (Western Japan) in 2021. In conjunction with these, Japan plans to host more grand art exhibitions and performing arts festivals. JNTO noted that 180 thousand cultural programs were held in the UK nationwide before/during the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games (4) Expanding choices of destinations for educational trips. (5) Joint promotion with Low Cost Carriers and cruise ships.
Developing inbound tourism to be a more profitable industry: This involves: (1) Increasing arrivals from long-haul and luxury markets, such as the United States. (2) Boosting Japan as a meeting and incentive destination. (3) Further improving the country as a tourist-friendly place, with a wider acceptance of credit cards for payment, more foreign language signage, and expansion of free Wi-Fi services. (4) Raising tourism revenue and labor productivity. (5) Inspiring travelers through information and communication technology. In this regard, JNTO has just launched an online media center with a free database of over 10,000 photos and videos at: https://jomc.jnto.go.jp
JNTO hopes that these policies and strategies will be economically fruitful in both the short and long term. For more information on travel to Japan, visit the Japan National Tourism Organization’s USA website at: www.us.jnto.go.jp or call JNTO at (212) 757-5640 in New York or (213) 623-1952 in Los Angeles.