As Japan realizes it has to attract more foreign visitors to augment revenue from its flagging domestic tourism industry, the Construction and Transport Ministry created the new Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) this month, with Yoshiaki Honpo as director general. Most agents in the U.S. will be familiar with the Japan National Tourist Office (JNTO). The creation of the new agency in no way obliterates the JNTO, however. Although the two boards are separate entities, they’ll work together to turn Japan’s tourism prospects around.
The JTA has identified several key problem areas and it will be the mandate of the new agency to turn things around. Some of these problems will be easier to address than others. According to the Japan National Tourist Organization, the majority of complaints made by foreign tourists about Japan are language-related. Tourists report that they are often frustrated by the absence of English signs in train stations and tourist attractions. This is a relatively easy problem that can be rectified with time and money.
Less easy to treat is the perception that Japanese citizens aren’t very welcoming to foreign travelers. A World Economic Forum report on the international tourism industry gave Japan an overall ranking of 23 among 130 destinations. Japan earned especially high marks for its transport and cultural infrastructure, but plummeted to a ranking of 128 in the category of affinity, or how well visitors connect with the culture.
A recent opinion poll found that almost one-third of Japanese do not want the numbers of foreign tourists to increase, and more than half the respondents answered that it’s unnecessary to relax visa exemptions or simplify visa procedures. How do you change such a mindset? The JTA will seek to encourage ordinary citizens to reach out and communicate with visitors in the hope that interaction with travelers will foster a more welcoming attitude among the Japanese.
These efforts come at a time when Japan is facing a drop in inbound travel. Last August, inbound travel declined 2.03 percent—the first decline in 29 months. While not all markets posted a drop, arrival figures from the U.S., South Korea, China, Thailand, Canada and the UK diminished.
“The Japanese government has recognized how vital tourism is for the nation,” says Hidenao Tanazaka, the new executive director of the Los Angeles Japan National Tourist Office. “The way we receive tourists is very important."
According to Tanazaka, the goal is to achieve 10 million overseas visitors a year by 2010; in 2007, Japan received 8.35 million visitors.