If tourism is to become a key industry for Japan moving forward, a more sustainable model for tourism is needed. In addition to greater investment in transportation infrastructure within the country, improved marketing communication strategies and new attractions are all essential to achieving this goal.
Japan’s Tourism Boom
In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan. As a result, inbound tourism is now pinned as a potential growth industry for the Japanese economy. However, this sudden influx of travelers has not been without issue, and signs of potential future troubles as a result of overtourism are already becoming apparent at many of the country’s more popular destinations. At the same time, some localities find themselves facing the exact opposite problem highlighting the need to find ways to grow tourism beyond the confines of Japan’s so-called “Golden Route”—the corridor running from Tokyo to Kyoto. Finding a way to reconcile these two opposite sides is imperative in creating a sustainable tourism model for Japan and both the public and private sector have roles to play.
The current tourism boom is said to have begun in 2012. However, its roots can actually be traced back to 2003, when the former prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, announced the Visit Japan campaign that laid the groundwork for increased tourism to Japan to become a reality.
No matter what time you choose to start an analysis of tourism to Japan from, however, it is clearly the case that tourism to Japan has skyrocketed and the numbers are expected to continue to grow in the coming years. The current administration has set a goal of 40 million tourists to Japan by 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, and these numbers are looking more and more achievable as we approach the upcoming summer games. In fact, the most recent figures estimate that more than 31 million tourists visited Japan in 2018.
Overtourism in Japan
However, with tourism increasing at such a blistering pace various issues have arisen. The growth in number of people visiting Japan every year has put a considerable strain on transportation infrastructure and massive crowds have become the norm in many of Japan’s larger cities’ most popular areas. Some high-profile instances of poor behavior from tourists, such as vandalism at major temples and shrines, have also occurred and are increasing in frequency. As a result there is a growing amount of discontent among locals at the disruption to the “harmony” they once enjoyed and some Japanese residents have voiced the opinion that their quality of living has gone down as a direct result of this overtourism.
As with any kind of rapid change, a period of growing pains and adjustment is to be expected, but that does not absolve the current approach towards tourism—focused on growth at all costs—that is clearly a problem deserving serious consideration.
Encouraging Tourism to the Rest of the Country
An ongoing theme when discussing anything Japan-related is the declining population. The effects of Japan’s aging population and low birthrate are most strongly felt in Japan’s countryside, and as more and more younger Japanese move to the cities, especially Tokyo, many of Japan’s prefectures find themselves facing existential crises.
While the growth of the inbound tourism market has been heralded as a new pillar of economic support for local communities by politicians in Tokyo, the reality is that the bounty of tourism is not equally shared or distributed amongst Japan’s prefectures. In fact, the top 5 most-visited prefectures account for 63% of all tourist stays, while the top 10 most-visited prefectures claim 79% of foreign tourists—this latter data point being an almost perfect example of the Pareto principle (i.e. the 80-20 rule) at work. Although the number of foreign visitors has increased in nearly all prefectures, due to the total increase in inbound tourism to Japan on the whole, it is still not anywhere near enough to offset the negative effects a rapidly decreasing population has on local economies.
Therefore, in order to create a more sustainable tourism model in Japan for the future, the issue of how to spread the benefits of tourism to other parts of the country is crucial. However, promoting tourism to Japan’s less-traveled regions comes with its own set of problems to be dealt with; namely insufficient infrastructure, ineffective promotion and, in the worst of cases, a lack of a compelling value proposition for foreign tourists to visit. These three points represent the keys to creating a sustainable model for tourism in Japan.
Infrastructure: The First Key to a Sustainable Model for Tourism in Japan
Some of the most worthwhile attractions outside of the previously-mentioned Golden Route in Japan simply aren’t that easy to get to, especially for foreign visitors who tend to rely solely on public transportation while they are in the country. Improvements to infrastructure that would get more non-Japanese tourists traveling to these other parts of Japan, would also serve the dual purpose of lessening strains on crowded transportation within major cities, such as Tokyo, or others on the Golden Route, where foreign tourists currently tend to congregate in disproportionate numbers.
Creating the kind of rural infrastructure which would address this issue is where the Japanese government and large Japanese corporations must step up to the plate.
A promising example for this kind of improvement to infrastructure can be found in the expansion of train lines to the Chichibu region of Saitama Prefecture spearheaded by Seibu Railway, a private railway group operating in Saitama and Tokyo, in cooperation with 5 other railway groups.
The Chichibu region is in the western part of Saitama Prefecture and offers a number of attractions and activities for visitors. One of the most famous is its sea of clouds, a stunning natural phenomenon in which the area in between the mountains in the region become engulfed in clouds and mist. However, although the Chichibu region is in relative close proximity to Tokyo, it faces stiff competition from Hakone and Nikko, which are arguably more famous and both equally nearby to the capital.
Despite these challenges though, the Chichibu region has seen a significant uptick in tourism due to infrastructure improvements. With the opening of Tokyo Metro’s Fukutoshin Line in 2013, a direct route from Yokohoma, in Kanagawa Prefecture south of Tokyo, to Chichibu was created. Seibu Railway also went on to develop a train capable of running on both above-ground railway tracks and subway lines to improve the customer experience of the reserved seat direct operation along this route.
When it comes to travel, direct through-operations provide a strong value proposition, lessening the psychological barriers posed by complicated transfers and timetables that prevent some people from traveling in the first place. Combining the through-operation with this new train built to enhance passenger experience has succeeded in making the journey more appealing to potential visitors.
While building the infrastructure to get visitors to a destination is important as a first step, the work doesn’t stop there. The next thing which must be dealt with is the matter of successfully introducing the place in question as a tourist destination to a wider audience—something that many in the Japanese tourism industry still struggle with.
Improved Marketing Communications: The Second Key to a Sustainable Tourism Model in Japan
Japan’s domestic tourism marketing (i.e. campaigns aimed at Japanese people) is usually quite good, however, when discussing Japan’s tourism marketing aimed at foreign audiences there is definitely room for improvement.
Whether it be superior graphic design and art direction, penning campaign slogans and copy that resonates with consumers (such as the well-known campaign advertising Kyoto pictured above), or just a better overall strategy, domestic tourism marketing is simply orders of magnitude superior to inbound tourism marketing—which tends to be sporadically executed and lacking in terms of both planning and coordination.
The key insight which seems to be overlooked by many Japanese companies in the tourism industry—especially those trying to reach foreign audiences—is that a great deal of knowledge and awareness already exists for what they are promoting when dealing with Japanese consumers.
Marketing to people familiar with your product, brand, or in the case of tourism “place,” is totally different than reaching out to those with little to no knowledge. This may sound like a truism, yet it’s worth repeating because time and time again we see examples of marketing by Japanese that assumes knowledge and familiarity with a place, a food, or a cultural concept, which is beyond the average foreign visitor’s knowledge. This is understandable as these companies are accustomed to speaking to Japanese 99% of the time, however, taking this knowledge for granted is always a recipe for disaster.
Educating foreign tourists, therefore, needs to be a critical component to any marketing communications strategy, and it must be continuous. A single campaign is not going to be enough to cement the knowledge of a place of interest in the minds of potential visitors.
A second aspect to the marketing communication issue concerning rural areas, that we have identified as problematic, is the use of spokespeople already affiliated with or who have a personal stake in a region.
Those with a personal connection (foreign and Japanese alike) are often chosen to serve as official spokespeople or ambassadors for a region or town. While the rationale may appear sound and the enthusiasm, passion, and authenticity of these individuals is to be applauded, this approach might not actually be the best means of reaching a wider audience and attracting new visitors. This rings especially true when it comes to foreign tourists.
To appeal to a wider market it is oftentimes better to have an impartial third party, who can hone in on something overlooked by those with vested interests or who already think what they are promoting is fascinating.
One of the most common problems we notice from non-Japanese ambassadors in particular is overuse of the phrase “the real Japan” in relation to promoting Japan’s countryside. Not only is this a cheap cliché, which simply doesn’t deliver when it comes to increasing tourism to the more rural prefectures, this kind of messaging really only appeals to a very specific audience, those interested in traditional (as opposed to contemporary) Japanese culture, and whom the vast majority of visitors to Japan are not a part of.
Objectivity and creativity are both needed in order to bring new perspectives on how to promote Japan’s regions. Only involving those who are too close to the matter, results in attracting only people with an interest in that place to begin with. As a result, it doesn’t address the issue nor does anything towards changing the status quo.
New Tourist Attractions: The Third Key to a Sustainable Model for Tourism in Japan
New tourist attractions are the final key to a long-term, sustainable tourism model for Japan. The creation of experiences which cater to foreign visitors are especially necessary for regions which have difficulty attracting tourists of any kind with existing tourism assets.
Our previous point focused on promoting tourism destinations through PR, marketing, and advertising. However, while it is true some regions or attractions may simply lack effective publicity and marketing campaigns to bring in tourists, some more rural locales must also invest in new assets that would specifically appeal to non-Japanese guests as well. While this requires a deeper level of understanding about foreigners’ tastes and interests than most Japanese tend to possess, it is absolutely necessary if less-visited places are to compete with major cities that have more to offer for tourists with limited time in the country.
Things are further complicated though, because one can’t simply ask people what they want to see or experience for ideas as, more often than not, they don’t know what they want. On the other hand, unilateral attempts by Japanese businesses and local governments at creating new attractions for foreign tourists in various prefectures haven’t yielded favorable results, thus creating a catch-22 of sorts.
What then can be done? Studio Ghibli and Aichi Prefecture’s newest upcoming attraction may present a potential formula for success.
The Ghibli Formula
One example of a new attraction which looks to hit all the right notes is the upcoming Studio Ghibli theme park (currently under construction) that will open in Fall 2022 in Aichi Prefecture.
source: Aichi Prefecture
While Nagoya, the capital of Aichi Prefecture, is along the bullet train route that runs from Tokyo to Kyoto, the prefecture is not on most tourists’ radar as a destination in its own right—the majority of people simply pass through on their way to or from the previously mentioned cities. Although Aichi is home to both a Toyota museum and Toyota factory, the latter of which offers tours that are popular among automobile enthusiasts, it does not have nearly the same type of draw that Tokyo or Kyoto possess. However, the value proposition of the prefecture as a whole stands to be immensely strengthened when the Ghibli theme park opens, and there is already a strong precedence for this.
Studio Ghibli films have achieved widespread recognition abroad. Fans of the studio visiting Japan often make a pilgrimage to the Ghibli Museum, which is located in a suburban park in western Tokyo. Despite being outside the city center, the Ghibli Museum is one of the most popular museums on foreign tourists’ list of places to visit while in Japan. Tickets are limited and quickly sell out every month.
By Leveraging Studio Ghibli’s popularity, Aichi Prefecture stands to benefit from increased awareness among foreign tourists and Ghibli fans visiting Japan gain a new site to experience the worlds of their favorite films, thus creating a win-win scenario for all. Additionally, by diversifying its tourism assets Aichi Prefecture makes the most of its location along the Golden Route while also building up the area outside its major city center as well.
Regardless of how much investment was required by the prefecture as part of this collaborative effort with Studio Ghibli, the opportunities for Aichi moving forward stand to be worth much more. As the Ghibli theme park’s location—the site of the 2005 Aichi World Expo—is actually outside of Nagoya, requiring around an hour to get to for those using public transportation, this may help increase the number of tourists staying overnight in the prefecture, thereby benefiting more businesses such as hotels and restaurants.
Giving people a reason to venture a little bit off the beaten path in Japan can be difficult, especially for those visiting for just a short time, but the Ghibli theme park is a good example of the type of attraction and experience that could potentially persuade more foreign tourists to do so. Other Japanese regions looking to grow their tourism numbers might look to this example as inspiration for their own new attractions.
The current de facto tourism policy in Japan is far too focused on visitor numbers without thinking of the myriad, real consequences that result from this increase in guests from abroad. Solutions are needed to help ease strains on local infrastructure in major cities, most notably Tokyo, as well as on how to ensure tourism in Japan does not continue to center solely on the so-called, “Golden Route” running from Tokyo to Kyoto. This is why an approach which focuses on a sustainable model for tourism in Japan going forward is desperately needed.
To support such a sustainable model for Japan, regional governments as well as local stakeholders like businesses, railway operators, etc., must work together to improve and expand infrastructure, making rural areas more accessible for guests. Marketing communication strategies must be improved to resonate with a wider audience and campaigns developed which can successfully highlight the charms of lesser-known destinations to foreign tourists who aren’t as knowledgeable about Japan. Finally, in areas plagued by perennial low-tourism numbers, investing in new tourism assets which appeal to foreign visitors—the drivers of the current tourism boom—should be considered as a means provide much needed stimulus to local economies and ensure tourism can continue to grow throughout the rest of the country as well.
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