Japan’s unique culture and dramatic landscapes have long held a strong allure for travelers from the world over. Currently in the midst of an inbound tourism boom, Japan welcomed a record breaking 20 million foreign tourists in 2015, nearly four times as many as when the “Visit Japan” campaign was launched in 2003. The weakening yen, more low-cost flight offerings and eased visa regulations, along with an increase in individual disposable incomes in emerging economies around Asia have all contributed to this stunning development. With the Olympics in 2020 as the icing on the cake, these are ideal times to attract new visitors to Japan. But how do we sustain the momentum beyond 2020?
Repeaters are the key to success: Today, over 50% of foreign visitors to Japan are repeaters, coming back to Japan, looking for more of what the country has to offer, while one quarter of visitors have been to Japan four or more times. We will have many first-timers to Japan between now and the 2020 Olympics, and to convert them into repeaters and maintain their interest, we need to look at the travel experience in a new and multidimensional way.
Improving accessibility: Today, most inbound tourists stay on the beaten track, the “Golden Route” between Tokyo and Osaka. To turn first-time visitors into repeaters, we must show them the potential for new adventures and new experiences. You thought Hokkaido was the be-all and end-all of Japanese skiing? Wait until you try Niigata! To make Japan’s regional areas and hidden gems available to tourists, accessibility needs to be improved. Whether it’s increasing train routes or simply translating road signs into multiple languages, easy travel beyond the “Golden Route” will be of key importance.
Connectivity on the road: Speaking of new adventures, staying connected is extremely important for tourists, especially if they don’t speak the language. More than half of visitors to Japan say that Wi-Fi would be the most convenient tool to help them discover and navigate Japan. Free Wi-Fi hotspots in regional areas will not only allow visitors to stay connected to their loved ones, but will also help them find information about their next travel itinerary as they seek their next adventure.
Lowering language barriers: Of course, there will always be some language barriers but overcoming this obvious challenge is of utmost importance to broadening the travel experience. The increase in multilingual staff in shops and hotels as a result of the tourism boom is noticeable, and many street signs, transport announcements, local guidebooks and restaurant menus have also been translated into English. However, most of these efforts are still concentrated to the larger city centers. Continuing to expand these efforts to regional areas will help eliminate travel jitters for foreign tourists and open up Japan as a repeat travel destination.
Deepening travel experiences through personalization: Times have changed since chartered tours were the only way to go, and tourism is taking an increasingly personalized route. Improved accessibility to regional areas and lesser-trodden paths will broaden the travel experiences available, while encouraging travelers to explore their own personal interests in Japan will deepen their travel experience. This could mean a personal tour of the morning sumo practice or discovering Kyoto-style cooking with local farmers. Offering activities that cater to travelers’ personal needs and wants will keep them coming back for more.
Cultural flexibility: Allowing tourists access to the deeper experiences that Japan has to offer also necessitates a level of flexibility on the part of Japanese hosts. For example, the age-old “no tattoo” rules at the hot springs appears set to be revised to welcome more foreign guests. The key here is to balance cultural flexibility with a healthy respect for core Japanese traditional values.
The Japan tourism boom looks set to continue in the lead up to the 2020 Olympics, but to sustain this momentum Japan needs to convince its visitors that it’s worth a repeat visit. Making more of the country accessible through easy navigation, internet connectivity and lower language barriers, as well as personalization, will all play a role in establishing Japan as the place to visit in Asia for many years to come.