“there is plenty of room for growth with travellers from the West”

Big ambitions

How realistic is Japan’s goal of 40 million tourists in 2020?


Text by Justin McCurry

It has taken a while to get used to the idea that Japan — long considered an expensive destination only for the truly adventurous traveller — is now a global tourism hotspot.

The evidence is impossible to ignore: the fleets of coaches depositing parties of travellers outside their hotels, the proliferation of English-language menus, and the stream of business initiatives aimed at luring even more visitors. From the well-trodden avenues of Ginza to the backstreets of Shinjuku, the tourist yen reigns supreme.

Faced with a shrinking, ageing population and mixed returns from attempts to kickstart the economy from within, Japan’s government is pinning its hopes on ambitious overseas tourism targets to spur growth.

The strategy appears to be working. A record 28.7 million people visited Japan in 2017, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), compared with 10.4 million in 2013 and just 4.76 million in 2000. The majority, around 85%, were from Asia — mainly China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and, increasingly, Southeast Asia. The government has set a target of welcoming 40 million tourists in 2020, the year Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics and Paralympics, and 60 million by 2030.

But compared with the influx of visitors from Asia, European tourists are still relatively rare. Preliminary figures provided by the JNTO showed that in December 2017, South Koreans were the single biggest group, accounting for about 678,900 of the total 2.52 million arrivals that month, followed by 564,300 Chinese. By comparison, Japan welcomed 20,801 British visitors, 15,499 from France and 10,713 from Germany.

But efforts are being made to reach out to far-flung markets. In February, the Japan Tourism Agency launched the “Enjoy My Japan” campaign — targeting long-haul travellers from Europe, North America, and Australia — with TV commercials, digital advertising and online platforms. The agency points out that “there is plenty of room for growth with travellers from the West,” who currently make up just 11% of overseas visitors.

However, per capita, they are more generous contributors to the Japanese economy. A recent survey showed that, as spending by Chinese tourists has slowed, their European counterparts are happily parting with greater quantities of cash, with British tourists the biggest spenders.

The hotel and airline industries are facing a race against time to accommodate the expected increase in visitors. The number of available hotel rooms stood at 1,561,772 as of March last year, according to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. That figure does not include private lodgings, and the teething problems experienced by home-sharing schemes such as Airbnb have given extra urgency to the need to build more accommodations.

David Atkinson, president of Konishi Decorative Arts & Crafts Co. and a special adviser to the JNTO, attributes the explosion in tourism to a relaxing of visa requirements, first for Chinese visitors and, more recently, for people coming from Southeast Asia. But he is quick to play down the Olympic factor.

“The Olympics haven’t had a direct impact on the growth in tourism, since no one visits a venue two years ahead of the Games,” he observes. “But, indirectly, the Olympics have made an enormous difference. They have nudged the Japanese into doing things — like improving Wi-Fi coverage and relaxing visa requirements — that they should have done years ago.”

Atkinson, who is confident that Japan will be able to accommodate the additional 11 million expected visitors, said the industry’s focus was widening to include people from farther afield, such as Europe.

“You’re seeing the impact of that coming through now,” he says.

Keio Plaza Hotel Tokyo has spotted the potential in courting long-haul travellers who are willing to pay extra for a longer, more comfortable stay. It opened its luxury Premier Grand Club Floors in December 2016, while the Keio Group has plans to open a new hotel in Kyoto this year and in Sapporo next year, according to Junko Saito, deputy director of marketing PR at Keio Plaza Hotel.

“We are ready to accommodate the luxury market and are expecting to welcome more guests from Europe,” Saito says. “The Keio Group is expanding, in both the budget and luxury sectors.”

European airlines are seeing a steady growth in passengers from the Continent on their Japan services.

“Traditionally, European airlines have a bigger proportion of Japanese travellers on our flights,” says Leif Nilsson, regional general manager for Asia–Pacific at Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), which operates a daily flight between Narita and Copenhagen.

“Since 2015, SAS has focused on marketing Japan in Scandinavia and gradually shifting the mix onboard closer to a fifty-fifty split — that means we are getting more people travelling to Japan from the three Scandinavian countries and other parts of northern Europe,” he explains, adding that Japan’s airport authorities were supportive of requests to accommodate more flights to different airports as 2020 draws nearer. “To handle the increased number of travellers, we would like to add another daily flight between Haneda and Copenhagen, and move the Narita flight to Stockholm.”

The Lufthansa Group, which comprises Lufthansa, SWISS and Austrian Airlines, is planning a steady increase in capacity to Japan over the next years to meet the expected rise in demand, according to Donald Bunkenburg, senior director in the group’s Japan and Korea office.

Bunkenburg says the four airports it uses in Japan — Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda, Nagoya’s Chubu Centrair and Osaka’s KIX — “have all been cooperative and flexible”, adding that the group expects the number of passengers visiting Japan from Europe to rise by 12% next year, when it will add flights servicing Frankfurt–Nagoya and Frankfurt–Osaka, along with additional Austrian Airlines frequencies between Narita and Vienna.

Saito, however, warns against complacency, especially when targeting tourists from the relatively untapped European market.

“When I talk to people in Europe, I get the sense that they are aware Japan is an attractive destination but, on the other hand, there isn’t enough information for them,” she says. “We have to improve our communication and address the specific needs of people from Europe. We’re doing well, but there is always room for improvement.” 

“indirectly, the Olympics have made an enormous difference. They have nudged the Japanese into doing things … that they should have done years ago”