Japan has reopened its borders, but David Atkinson warns against business as usual.
In October 2022, Japan fully reopened its borders to visa-free tourism, ending more than two years of stringent pandemic-induced border controls for independent travelers. The same month recorded nearly 500,000 arrivals — a significant leap, but still a shadow of the 2.5 million who visited in October 2019. For Japan’s international tourism, much of the recovery lies ahead.
For the last three years, Rakuten Travel — one of Japan’s leading online travel agencies — has worked to keep hotels around the country supplied with a steady flow of domestic travelers. Now, with global guests reentering the fray, the industry is poised to undergo a second major transformation, with potential opportunities in store.
To explore how Japan might capitalize on this fresh start for inbound tourism, Rakuten Travel head Yoshiyuki Takano sat down with analyst and award-winning author David Atkinson at the recent Rakuten Optimism conference in Tokyo.
Let’s drop the unhealthy focus on culture
Atkinson has served in a variety of advisory roles, including for the Japan National Tourism Organization, where he has advocated for a rethinking of Japan’s “traditional” expectations of foreign tourists.
“They arrive in Japan. Monday, 9:00 – shrine; 10:00 – shrine; 11:00 – temple; 12:00 – noodles; 1:00 – shrine; 2:00 – shrine; 3:00 – temple; 4:00 – temple. No one wants to travel like this.”
Japan has long pushed culture and history as its major tourism draws, something Atkinson has a few reservations with. While samurai, kabuki and tea ceremonies might excite a select few, promoting this to the whole world doesn’t exactly paint Japan as the most fun destination.
“Among a population of 125 million, only about 3 million people in Japan do tea ceremonies,” he ventured — noting that he himself is an enthusiast. “Yet we push this so hard. Japanese people aren’t even that interested in this, so why are we making foreign tourists do it? They come and they enjoy it for 30 minutes, but what are we expecting them to do for the next two weeks they’re here? Go and watch a Kabuki show? Again, you aren’t going to be watching Kabuki from morning till night.”
Japanese cuisine, too — while popular — isn’t enough to sustain enjoyment during the entire duration of a Japan trip.
“Statistically speaking, even Japanese people only eat Japanese food once a day,” he argued. “Yet we push Japanese food constantly on foreign tourists. Say someone from Europe is visiting for two or three weeks. There is no way they’re going to want to eat only Japanese food three times a day for three weeks straight. This is a mistake.”
Japan’s untapped tourism resources
The solution, Atkinson says, is to offer a diverse range of activities and content for tourists to engage with, according to their tastes. “The biggest thing is that we need to start treating global tourists just like we do domestic tourists. We’re all human.”
Atkinson drew attention to one often overlooked aspect of Japan: its vast natural resources. An island nation, Japan is in fact one of the most forested and mountainous countries in the world.
“The world’s biggest tourism resource is nature,” he stressed. “Japan has everything from subtropical zones to snowy mountains. Hiking, river rafting — we don’t promote this side of Japan.”
Atkinson recalled an advisory position for which he had traveled to London to promote Japan’s natural resources. “I was surprised to meet one person from a prominent magazine there who didn’t even know Japan had beaches. An island nation with no beaches…” he pondered. “Japan is much more than just Mt. Fuji and shrines.”
One place to start exploring the diverse range of experiences you can enjoy in Japan is Rakuten’s own booking platform, Rakuten Travel. The site, renewed in July 2022, offers English-friendly travel plans including popular activities and regional dishes for enjoying each of Japan’s unique areas.
“Even the same person is going to feel like doing something different from day to day. We need to think a little harder about this, and create and promote more diverse contents for tourists to enjoy.”
The weak yen isn’t the big draw people think it is
Another topic dominating discussion on Japan’s tourism revival is the recent crash in value of the yen. After hitting a 32-year low against the U.S. dollar in October, many suggested that the weaker currency might be a major boon for tourists looking to travel cheaply. Atkinson respectfully disagrees.
“There’s no established link between exchange rates and tourist numbers. People say that a cheaper yen means more tourists, but this is an invention of people unfamiliar with the tourism industry.”
Atkinson argues that budget-conscious tourists aren’t even considering Japan in the first place.
“There are other countries that are much cheaper,” he pointed out. “It’s clearly not the price. Most people are looking for a balance of fun and budget. There are plenty of countries that people want to go to even though they’re expensive. The U.S. turns over more tourism dollars than any other country in the world, but it isn’t cheap. France definitely isn’t cheap.”
Where the weaker yen does make a difference, however, is for tourists who already have a budget set for their trip. “The cheaper yen means they can spend more money in Japan. Maybe have a more expensive meal.”
The falling yen comes at a time of debate around Japan’s demographically challenged countryside. Inbound tourism is a major source of income for many rural communities, but Atkinson believes that many vendors in these communities are selling themselves short.
“If we’re offering something for 10,000 yen, yet tourists are now prepared to pay 14,000 yen — unless we give them another option, they’re only going to end up spending the 10,000.”
Offering a more diverse range of activities and products for tourists to enjoy could therefore potentially help boost wages and revitalize Japan’s rural economies. “We need to create a positive cycle in which people can have more fun as they spend more money.”