Despite a tremendous amount of pent-up demand from overseas tourists, tourism marketing in Japan faces numerous challenges.
Not only is Japan still closed in all but name to inbound tourists—with chances of it truly reopening to foreign visitors in any sort of numbers in 2022 starting to look slim—but the greater inbound tourism industry in Japan still hasn’t fully sorted out many of the issues that were becoming apparent prior to the pandemic.
In this article we will cover some of the main challenges facing the tourism industry in Japan before looking at what role marketing and digital marketing can play in response.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Rules which greatly limits inbound tourism to Japan
Japan isn’t welcoming independent tourists into Japan at the moment.
And that is clearly the biggest problem for the Japanese inbound tourism industry and its supporting industries.
Despite the previous Abe administration singling out inbound tourism as a major growth sector for Japan’s economy moving forward, more recent leaders, including the current Kishida administration, are not really proving to be champions of tourism to Japan.
While the rest of the world has been opening up to tourists, with many of the previous restrictions removed, Japan—having suspended visa-free entry into the country—remains firmly closed off to almost everyone except its citizens, residents, and those entering on business or student visas.
Not only does this put Japan at odds with the rest of its G7 compatriots, but it’s also prolonging any kind of recovery that the tourism industry in Japan, and those employed in tourism adjacent industries, desperately need.
Furthermore, with the current number of daily arrivals to Japan capped at just 20,000 people per day—which is mostly comprised of Japanese nationals and residents, both of whom can freely travel overseas—restarting inbound tourism is clearly the lowest priority for the Japanese government.
Empty streets in Kyoto, Japan were a rare sight just a few years ago
Strictly chaperoned guided tour packages
While some travel writers and publications in the travel indusrty have excitedly announced the recent move to allow guided (i.e. fully chaperoned) group tours, this actually changes nothing when it comes to tourism to Japan.
The first trial run of this program allowed only 50 tourists into the country as part of these guided tours, and as of writing only 1300 individuals from the 98 approved countries have applied for entry under the guidelines for the next two months.
We share the opinion of notable critics that the current system is a political move by Japan at trying to appease other governments by appearing to open, but making the process so convoluted that the country still remains closed.
In reality, the current chaperoned tour scheme does nothing meaningful to increase tourist numbers or to change the status quo of closed borders, which is actually quite popular among the majority of Japanese voters.
The thing about these fully chaperoned, guided tours is not only do they do next to nothing to help 99% of the Japanese tourism industry, it makes it difficult to market and promote Japan as a tourist destination in general.
Group tours are simply out of touch with the times since most overseas tourists these days have zero interest in a school-fieldtrip-like vacation to Japan that not only adds extra hassle but significant cost (upwards of thousands of dollars per person) to a trip to Japan.
Independent travelers, who make up the bulk of all travelers, are not impressed and—as the numbers would indicate—are voting with their wallets and choosing other options for international travel.
Despite all the headlines announcing its reopening, Japan essentially remains closed to foreign tourists
Sustainable levels of tourism
The next challenge facing the inbound tourism industry in Japan is that the most popular destinations in the country really need to figure out ways to better manage crowds.
Let’s look at the most notable example, which our team has firsthand experience with.
It’s widely accepted in Japan that inbound tourism to the city of Kyoto was totally out of control just a few, short years ago.
At the absolute zenith of the recent inbound tourism boom in Japan, poor behavior from overseas tourists got so bad in the ancient capital that it resulted in the city banning photography on streets famous for geisha because of paparazzi-like harassment.
While the percentage of visitors responsible for these incidents were small, the total number of occurrences was unsettling and these incidents just kept happening, spurring the above action being taken.
Similarly, due to the influx of tourists from overseas, the thousands of vermillion torii gates of Fushimi Inari in the southern part of Kyoto city were often overshadowed by the hordes of travelers to this popular shrine. This made images such as the one below almost impossible to actually experience.
These are just a few cases which our team has firsthand knowledge of, but there are countless other examples in recent years that illustrate just how bad overtourism got in the buildup to the 2020 Olympics, when tourism to Japan grew at an exponential pace.
Without concrete plans for sustainable inbound tourism put in place, cities like Kyoto will find themselves faced with an issue of not just overtourism, but not delivering on their marketing promises and carefully, curated place brand.
In other words, rather than being met with Zen-like tranquility and serenity for which the ancient capital of Kyoto prides itself on, visitors face crowds at every turn, which greatly diminishes the overall experience.
Essentially, without a strategy places like Kyoto will be back in the same position it was just a few years ago which wasn’t all that well-received by the majority of local residents.
Poor use of budgets
Tourism marketing experienced a bit of a gold rush prior to the pandemic during the lead up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Budgets were made to build on this momentum as well as the expected influx of foreign tourists and their money, but ultimately, for many localities, these budgets were spent poorly with little results, and left them worse off than before.
The expenditures ranged from facilities that opened to much fanfare by the planners and developers, but ultimately fizzled out and now go underutilized, to money spent on social media campaigns or influencers that didn’t help move the needle in any meaningful way and whose impact couldn’t be traced, which has led to disillusionment with marketing in general.
The reasons for this outcome are many in number, but the fact of the matter is that poor use of budget is a direct result of a lack of understanding of marketing fundamentals and the inability to develop a comprehensive marketing strategy.
Without a dedicated marketing function overseeing a budget, this money oftentimes gets wasted, which then leads to future marketing and promotional budgets getting slashed, which usually only worsens the situation for struggling locales.
Getting people off the Golden Route
Cities and prefectures not on Japan’s so-called Golden Route, which spans the 450km length of Japan from Tokyo in the east and Kyoto in the west, continue to face an uphill battle when it comes to tourism marketing.
Very little has been done to create new attractions, accommodations, or facilities that would appeal to international tourists, outside of the already popular cities and destinations along the Golden Route that overseas visitors flock to.
Less well-known locales in Japan’s other prefectures are failing to attract visitors from abroad in meaningful numbers with their existing assets, and this is only furthering the divide between the popular cities or prefectures and the less popular ones.
And it is inbound tourists from overseas who are absolutely key here because domestic tourists—while outnumbering inbound tourists—do not bring the same kind of economic windfall that these places need to aid in their revitalization.
Ultimately what keeps overseas visitors away, besides the current border restrictions in place, is a combination of things.
However, one major reason is that inbound tourists question if it’s worth the effort to visit off the beaten track places rather than more famous spots.
This is not a problem that is easily solved.
Among the various issues facing inbound tourism in Japan, it is this issue that requires the most number of groups working together to come up with some kind of strategy.
Local government at either the prefectural or city level, DMOs, businesses, citizens, it will take tremendous buy-in from various actors and stakeholders to address this issue, but this much effort is needed to stand any chance of success.
Japan’s countryside still remains a hard-sell to most foreign tourists
Locals are divided on welcoming back tourists
Those in the travel and tourism industry, as well as any business in Japan that has come to increasingly cater to foreign tourists, are a vocal minority when it comes to welcoming back visitors from abroad.
They are also biased, naturally, in their opinions and feelings towards overseas visitors to Japan as their livelihoods are closely intertwined with that of inbound tourism.
The majority of Japanese, on the other hand, are apprehensive about welcoming back tourists and this fact really needs to be communicated to would-be travelers to Japan. There’s nothing worse than traveling halfway around the world only to be met with a poor welcome, and sadly this is probably what is waiting for many visitors as of right now.
Japan just isn't ready for tourists again
Is Japan ready for a return to previous levels of tourism?
No, it is not.
And in fact, changes made since the beginning of the pandemic are going to cause problems if tourist numbers to Japan somehow make a V-shaped recovery.
One example of a potential problem is the number of trains per hour have been reduced in many cities around Japan.
At first glance this may seem like a small, petty little thing, but consider the following.
There was a brief period where commuters in Tokyo enjoyed far less crowded trains during the morning and evening rush hour. Basically we had the same amount of trains as pre-pandemic, but fewer riders.
Now we have fewer trains, to match the still lower ridership levels, but this means it’s just as crowded as it was before, yet with the added inconvenience of having to wait longer between each train.
Fewer trains per hour in a city like Tokyo often leads to crowded trains throughout the day
Think about what happens when you add in a couple million tourists per month to the current situation. It’s just asking for problems, and complaints from locals as it impacts their quality of life.
Furthermore, we do not anticipate Japanese railway operators to make any sort of proactive moves in preparation for the surge in riders that increased tourism would bring.
Then there are the issues stemming from differences in values and preferences between locals and visitors, which, to be fair, always existed but will only be exacerbated by the current situation.
People overseas from western countries are abandoning their masks en masse. They simply do not like them, and mask wearing was never really a part of the culture.
In Japan, the overwhelming majority of people still wear masks for one reason or another, and there is a real pressure to conform to this behavior. Even with the looming summer heat and humidity, few Japanese are seen going maskless.
This inevitable clash of cultures will absolutely cause problems if and when Japan decides to open up again, especially because of the double standards that the current administration is making towards foreign visitors being required to wear mask, but with no such requirement of citizens and residents.
What role can marketing play in the Japan tourism industry moving forward?
Prior to the pandemic Japan was seeing tourism levels increase every year and looked to be on track towards reaching its goal of 40 million tourists annually by 2020.
Additionally, in various surveys conducted overseas, Japan consistently ranks as the top destination people want to visit as soon as travel to the country becomes possible.
It’s clear that inbound tourism has still not reached its full potential in Japan.
However, as we’ve discussed earlier in this article, Japan is essentially still closed to tourists and elevated levels of tourism in Japan comes with a number of issues which the country must grapple with.
To support a recovery effort for its tourism industry Japan must adhere to the principles of reciprocity relating to visa-free travel or it will find itself losing visitors—and the money they bring—to other Asian countries that are more accommodating to foreign tourists.
Seeing as how inbound tourism to Japan generated over 46 billion dollars in 2019, this is not something that should be ignored—people’s livelihoods now depend on this sector of the economy.
Next, the inbound tourism industry in Japan has to find a more sustainable trajectory that involves a greater variety of destinations within Japan.
This means, that tourism marketing in Japan should aim to promote off-the-beaten-track locations in other prefectures not along the Golden Route.
To achieve this goal marketing professionals need to be more heavily involved in the planning and development of new attractions and facilities for inbound tourists.
One of the biggest issue with inbound tourism marketing in Japan continues to be the disconnect between the interests of those who would promote off-the-beaten-path destinations and those of the overwhelming majority of visitors.
This lack of objectivity, due to locals and DMOs having too much skin in the game, is a double-edged sword at best. More often than not, it’s simply a major weakness to the current approach.
Local government, tourism boards, and DMOs must start seeking outside advice for new ideas for rural areas to make meaningful gains in tourist numbers.
Finally, inbound tourism must look beyond social media and make more robust marketing plans.
Social media is not a panacea for any and all marketing challenge, and it’s important to develop strategic approaches to the marketing of localities and attractions in Japan.
Not only have costs associated with social media advertising skyrocketed, with competition in digital advertising showing no signs of slowing down, but the future outlook is that businesses and organizations alike cannot be solely dependent on this single channel.
Moving forward the role that marketing can play in inbound tourism marketing to Japan is one of both strategy and execution. Without the ability to both plan at the project level and implement at the campaign level, inbound tourism to Japan will not achieve the kind of results that it could otherwise.