“the demand in Tokyo has been increasing since it was chosen as the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics”

Omotenashi for the surging number of tourists to Japan

European companies are benefitting

Text by Simon Scott / Illustration by Guillaume Babusiaux

Japan was somewhat of a late-starter when it came to marketing itself as a tourist destination.


Back in the ’70s and ’80s, when countries like Indonesia and Thailand were beginning to milk the tourist dollar for all it was worth, Japan was content with the occasional Western face mixed in with the hordes of domestic tourists packing Kyoto’s mossy temples.

As late as the ’90s, the pipe-dream of reigniting the country’s long lagging domestic consumption and slumbering manufacturing sector was the order of the day, and tourism didn’t really factor into the equation.

It wasn’t until 2003 that tourism was seriously put on the government’s agenda, when then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi proposed his Visit Japan Campaign in a policy speech where he put forward his goal of turning Japan into a “tourism-based country.”

Fast-forward to 2016 and that is no longer a policy goal, but a reality.

Last year saw a record 19.7 million foreign tourists visit Japan, 50% more than in 2014, and about 25% of those were from mainland China.

This year is looking even better, and according to the latest figures from the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), just under half a million (498,100) Chinese tourists arrived in the month of March alone, a year-on-year increase of 47.3%.

Naturally, the hotel industry is reaping the benefits of this surge in tourist numbers, and growth is especially apparent at the luxury end of the spectrum.

IHG ANA Hotels Group Japan CEO Hans Heijligers says that most of their hotels have seen double-digit growth since last year.

“Our hotels across the country enjoy a high room occupancy rate … as a result of active inbound and domestic travel,” he states. “Nearly 70% of guests at ANA InterContinental Tokyo, The Strings by InterContinental Tokyo and InterContinental Osaka are overseas tourists.”

Heijligers believes that a range of factors is driving this increase in tourists from abroad, including more international flights and cruises to the country, the weakening of the yen, simpler tourist visa processes for Asian travellers, and a new, more appealing duty-free system.

“Attractions such as Universal Studios Japan in Osaka and Tokyo Disneyland have also boosted visitor arrivals over the past few years,” he says.

To better accommodate the growing number of tourists from China, IHG ANA Hotels launched a worldwide consumer communication plan called the Zhou Dao, or China Ready, Programme and this is already in place in Tokyo and Osaka. The programme provides services such as Chinese-speaking staff at the front desk or via 24/7 phone support and Chinese channels on in-room TVs.

The Hyatt Group’s Andaz Toranomon Hills is also benefitting from the growing number of overseas visitors, and, similarly, are also now providing services that specifically cater to the Chinese traveller.

“There has been an increase in connoisseurs of high-end hospitality from all over the world, and especially from the Chinese market,” says former general manager Arnaud de Saint-Exupéry, who recently left Andaz Tokyo to take up the position of Area Vice President for the Hyatt Group in the UK and Ireland. “They are not only visiting for shopping and sightseeing, but also for truly local experiences.”

De Saint-Exupéry has observed that although Japan has been an attractive tourist destination for a while, the demand in Tokyo has been increasing since it was chosen as the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics back in September 2013.

“It has definitely had a [clear] impact, increasing our traffic of overseas business and leisure travellers alike,” he adds.

De Saint-Exupéry believes that related developments in the city centre spurred by the Olympics will have a positive impact for Andaz because of its location in Toranomon.

“A new airport connection, and a new Toranomon station on the Hibiya line near our hotel will definitely provide better access and a more convenient experience for overseas and local guests alike,” he says.

Although there have been strong government initiatives to increase foreign tourism, De Saint-Exupéry sees there is still room for improvement in terms of building a more foreigner-friendly environment, such as offering more free Wi-Fi in public areas, improving language-capabilities and more universal signage, and making it easier to pay by credit cards issued by foreign banks.

“More partnership between the public and private sectors will be required,” he adds.

Airlines are also seeing increasing numbers of travellers from Europe, although this remains more modest in comparison to the influx of visitors from China. A total of 1,244,970 Europeans arrived in Japan in 2015, an 18.7% increase on the previous year, according to JNTO.

This upsurge is being driven by a “growing interest in Japan among Europeans,” says Donald Bunkenburg, general manager of Deutsche Lufthansa in Japan. “We are seeing increases of an average of 15% to 20% percent more, particularly with tourist travellers,” observes Bunkenburg.

This positive trend is particularly strong among travellers from northern and western European countries, such as Switzerland and Germany. Bunkenburg believes this is due to changing perceptions of the cost of travelling in Japan.

“It took a long time for people in Europe to realise Japan was actually not as expensive as its reputation,” he says. “For years everybody just thought: ‘Things are too expensive there’.”

The increased international press coverage of the run-up to the Olympics and the growing amount of attention being given to Japan’s high-quality cuisine are also helping to make the country a more desirable destination for European travellers, according to Bunkenburg.

In order to tap into this growing interest in Japan, Lufthansa Japan ran a promotional campaign in conjunction with the Nagoya Tourist Board called “Nagoya – blooming lovely”, in late February of this year.

An e-newsletter was sent out to more than one million of their subscribers — primarily frequent flyers — in several European countries promoting Nagoya as a tourist destination in the lead-up to spring and the cherry blossom season.

Bunkenburg notes that they chose to focus on Nagoya because, among Europeans, it is the least well-known destination in Japan Lufthansa flies to.

As the 2020 Olympics get closer by the day, things can only get better for Japan’s already booming tourist industry. The real test will take place when the Olympic flame is finally extinguished, to see if Japan can hold on to the prosperity the Games bring. With plenty of omotenashi — Japanese hospitality — to go around, no doubt it will. 

“there is still room for improvement in terms of building a more foreigner-friendly environment”