“Although Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, it remains a mystery to many tourists.” McKinsey & Company 2016
Japan has two unique superpowers. The first is monozukuri (craftsmanship). The iPhone may be developed in California and assembled in China, but at its core you’ll find Japanese parts. Japan has been extremely successful in exporting its high-precision components around the globe, but it has been decidedly less successful in capitalizing on its second superpower, omotenashi (hospitality). To showcase omotenashi, it is necessary to host overseas visitors in Japan, so I have identified inbound tourism as a sector of the local economy that has great potential for growth.
As of 2019, Japan had the third largest travel & tourism economy in the world. Regrettably, only 18% of tourism spending comes from overseas visitors. There is clearly significant room for growth in the inbound market.
“Tourism in Japan still represents just 0.5 percent of the country’s GDP, significantly lower than other developed nations such as France (2.4%) and the United States (1.3%). The biggest problems? Too few non-Asian international visitors; too many tourists concentrating on the major cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo; and significant capacity constraints with regard to accommodation and transportation.” McKinsey & Company 2016
“Correcting Japan’s visitor-portfolio imbalance and skewed regional distribution requires addressing several root causes, including a perception of high cost, low awareness of tourism assets, and a limited service model in local regions,” [that is, lack of foreign language support]. McKinsey & Company 2016
While walking in Itō Onsen with my family in August of 2019, I happened upon K’s House. K’s House is an attractive Inn, but that fact alone could not account for why so many overseas visitors were staying there. I was perplexed because all the overseas visitors in Itō Onsen seemed to be congregating at this one Inn. I was in Itō Onsen for my daughter’s scuba diving course, not as a tourist, so I was shocked to see how popular Itō Onsen was with overseas visitors. Honestly speaking, I would have thought the overseas visitors would be in Shimoda, but that was not the case. Later, on page 156 of the “#1 BEST-SELLING” travel guide of Japan, I discovered K’s House in Itō Onsen listed as the “best place to stay” when visiting “Mt. Fuji and Around Tokyo”. This is why the overseas visitors were all staying at K’s House.
How can Yamanashi get the kind of international exposure that K’s House enjoys? A well-curated tourism experience gets attention! You need to put resources into the development of tourism assets in order to get attention from traditional media like the best-selling guide book mentioned above. Contrary to the greatly exaggerated claims of its demise, traditional media is still very much alive. Social Networking Services (SNS) are useful to get the word out, but they only work for a narrow target audience (people who are already planning to visit Japan). Simply paying people to post on instagram or twitter probably won’t reach your target audience. We still rely on traditional media for most of the media we consume. Think about where you get your news, entertainment and other information. Traditional media allows businesses to target a broad audience through branded websites, magazines, television, and more. Traditional media tends to cost more than SNS due to its broad targeting and advertising channels, but it is possible to get free coverage if you have curated your tourism experiences well!
Building Awareness of Local Tourism Assets
In 2016, I decided on a two-pronged strategy to support inbound tourism in this region. First, I had to increase overseas visitors’ knowledge of Yamanashi, so I created a blog called “Close to Mount Fuji”. The blog is my attempt at creating top-down support. However, I realized that it was no use creating a local tourism blog if tourists couldn’t visit Yamanashi without a Japanese-speaking guide, so I began to work on bottom-up support. This support includes things like creating local bus timetables, restaurant menus and self-guided tour information in English.
In addition, I decided to help nurture the tourism support that is often lacking in Japan, that is, services in English. Thus, I began to instruct the local car hire agencies, the local bus companies, the local hotels, etc., in the use of hospitality English.
Ultimately, it is impossible for one person to revitalize an entire prefecture, so, in 2018, I decided to concentrate my efforts on the heart of Japan’s premier winery region. First, I explored the winery region on foot to identify wineries that would appeal to overseas visitors. Second, I met with several winery owners to see what I could do to help them attract more overseas visitors. Fortunately, several winery owners gladly accepted my help with their English websites, information pamphlets and wine tasting notes. Third, I designed self-guided walking tours of the winery region and published them on my website. Fourth, I contacted international travel companies to tell them about my self-guided walking tours. Contrary to my original intentions, the international travel companies recruited me to guide for them. They have since sent many journalists whose primary goal is to write about emerging tourist destinations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. As of today, these journalists have written and continue to write articles about Yamanashi’s wineries in some of the top magazines in the English-speaking world.
Food & Wine: gets 10,000,000 website visitors per month!
Monocle: a global affairs and lifestyle magazine, 24-hour radio station, website, retailer and media brand (840,000 copies sold in 2018).
Fortune: an American multinational business magazine headquartered in New York City (gets 8,000,000 website visitors per month!)
If one person can have this kind of impact in just 3 years, the possibilities are almost limitless for a larger group of similarly motivated people. I had never created a website before the age of 50! I am not a trained photographer! Imagine what I could do with more help! Primarily, I need partners who share my vision for inbound tourism. If I can get more people to join me in promoting Yamanashi, I am sure we can significantly increase the numbers of overseas visitors. I believe that inbound tourism can greatly offset the decline in the demand for services caused by Japan’s shrinking local populations, but we must build awareness of our tourism assets. Will you help me achieve this goal?