TOKYO (eTN) – Japan’s best-kept secret is probably its success to attract more foreign travelers to the country over the last decade. To further boost Japan’s tourism, the incumbent government decided to proceed with a new tourism body, the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA), which will be in charge of achieving Japan’s target of 20 million travelers by 2020.
If we all know about Japan’s high tech feats, the country’s success as a tourism nation has certainly been less emphasized. But Japan’s Yokoso campaign launched in 2003 is one of Japan’s biggest success stories of the decade. From 1990 to 2000, foreign tourist arrivals grew by 47 percent; however, from 2000 to 2007, the total number of foreign travelers jumped from 4.76 to 8.35 million, a stunning 75.4 percent growth.
“I am sure that Japan will be able to achieve its target of 10 million travelers,” indicated John Koldowski, head of PATA Strategic Intelligence Centre.
According to Japan National Tourist Organization data, tourism continued to grow from January to August 2008, albeit at a slightly more modest rate of 7 percent.
“We experienced in August a contraction of 2 percent in tourist arrivals. I think that we should end up the year with 8.7 million travelers, down from an earlier estimation of 9.15 million,” explained Zenbon Tei, senior assistant manager for research and study at the JNTO.
The creation of the Japan Tourism Agency, which took officially its duties on October 1st, will be charged to look at achieving the goal of 10 million foreign travelers by 2010 and even 20 million by 2020. During the inaugural ceremony, Yoshiaki Honpo, JTA new commissioner, indicated that Japan’s opening up to foreign markets was strategically of great importance: “As the nation’s population declines, tourism will become a necessary means to promote the country’s regional areas. We are in a period when we should look at foreign demand rather than relying on domestic demand.”
THE JTA comes under the umbrella of Japan’s MLIT, the powerful Ministry of Land development, Infrastructure and Transportation, which has been in charge of tourism. It will coordinate all work involving tourism from the various agencies and Ministries’ departments such as the Ministry of Home Affairs, which provides for example data on foreign arrivals. The JNTO will take over the role of a marketing and promotion agency under the JTA. Budget for the current year for tourism is fixed at ¥ 4.27 billion (roughly US$ 43 million) with a request to get up to ¥ 7.7 bn next year. Most of the budget will be dedicated to marketing actions.
“We have defined priority markets for 12 countries around the world including emerging markets such as Russia, India and Malaysia,” added Tei.
The 20 million-travelers’ target will face numerous challenges. Japan must change its visa policy, which remains far stricter than neighboring nations such as Korea. 62 countries currently enjoy a visa-exemption procedure but most Asian countries (except Brunei, Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan) are still excluded from it.
“We could gradually move to a visa-on-arrival policy for all Asia for stays which would not excess 14 days,” suggests Tei. Chinese individuals still face difficulties but those travelling in groups can now easily apply for a visa to Japan.
Among other identified weaknesses to bring more visitors in Japan is the lack of air connections. Flying into Japan remains expensive, as landing charges remain higher than in other Asian countries. Stretched capacities at Tokyo Narita airport represent another obstacle to more intercontinental flights. The situation should however improved with the completion of Narita runway’s expansion in 2010. Finally, a last weakness of Japan as a destination is the language barrier and the fact that many services are only available in Japanese. A problem that hangs probably to the isolated position of Japan for centuries. If Japan wants to move before 2010 to the status of a “Tourism Nation,” the JTA will have to look at those issues very seriously.