Travel and Tourism in Japan: Back to the Future (2 of 2)

Welcome to my second of two blog posts about my recent visit to JATA Expo and travelling in Japan.

In my last post I discussed some of the ideas that emerged from the opening session of JATA Tourism Expo 2014, particularly as the authorities in Japan seek to learn lessons from former Olympic hosts on how to boost tourism with the aid of the Games. Here I share some of my personal observations abIMG_1514 out Japan’s own preparedness for the Games, which are only six years away.

Every host has its own challenges to overcome in putting on the Olympics, even if they don’t always admit openly to what those challenges are. Given the huge numbers of international visitors that an Olympic Games attracts, the tourism sector in any country represents the face that visitors see (beyond the glitter annd fireworks of the opening ceremony), and is expected to play its part in overcoming these challenges, preparing for the rush, often years in advance.

On this first note, it was interesting at JATA Expo to observe the patriarchal language of the Japanese authorities (‘we will create a master plan, and it will be implemented’) against the more sanguine reflections of Chris Rodrigues of VisitBritain and John O’Sullivan of Tourism Australia: ‘this is what we thought would happen, but things turned out differently, and that’s OK…’)

Secondly, in terms of source markets for Japan in the coming years, it’s clear that Japan needs to continue to nurture its emerging markets, directing what it has to offer at the markets that are showing greatest promise, while remaining true to the qualities that have helped the country beat its own records in arrivals growth over the decades. In Asia especially, Japan is seen as the home of ‘Asia cool’ and this is partly why, as Hideki Tomioka of the Japan National Tourism Organization explained to me, Japan puts a lot of effort into targeting a younger audience in Asia in its marketing campaigns.

Korea is closer than you think

Thirdly, the Japanese can’t ignore that Korea is a close competitor in this ‘Asia cool’ market, so it’s up to Japan to do everything it can to convert those aspirations into bookings by making the most of its big modern cultural assets (music, fashion, film and TV, manga….), and putting its own young people at the heart of this process.

Street performers in the thriving, youthful South Korean capital
Street performers in the thriving, youthful South Korean capital

Having visited Korea the week before my arrival in Japan, it was striking to note the differences in what the two countries had to offer ‘Gen C Travellers’ (the connected generation), especially those towards the younger end of the spectrum. In the streets of Seoul, the smartphone rules. Millions of young people flow through the streets and the metro with their Samsung in hand and Beats headphones in their ears, on an even greater scale than you’d typically see in London or New York. With 4G and Wi-Fi in every corner of the city, the smartphone offers the answer to all needs.



Back to the future

Tokyo isn’t the same. Sure, there are smartphones around but it’s been more than a decade since I’ve seen so many flip-open mobile phones (not to mention fax machines or payphones!). Wi-Fi isn’t as easy to find as you’d think, especially outside of hotels. Instead, a whole array of complicated and expensive mobile phone rental schemes exist for overseas travellers wanting to stay connected throughout their stay. Over 80% of Japanese travellers still book their trips via phone or in person at traditional travel agents. When arranging check-in for some hotels in the south of the country, we were asked to fax our itinerary in advance!

In short, the country which was seen from afar as being at the forefront of technological innovation in the 80s and 90s appears now to be frozen in that very period.

Who rules the roost

The demographic composition of the delegates attending JATA Expo (especially those who were in charge) also demonstrated firmly that it older men who dominate all the major positions in the biggest travel corporations, not to mention the quasi-state corporations of Japan Travel Bureau, Japan Rail and so on. That may not be surprising to those who know Japan well (and Japan certainly isn’t alone in Asia, or in the world in this regard), but I wonder how much Japan’s strict adherence to this system stifles the kind of innovation that the country’s tourism industry needs in order to present its freshest and most appealing face to the world, especially younger audiences across Asia?

In my experience, Japan is a fascinating country to travel in (not least because of some of the factors I highlighted above) and without doubt, the Japanese exquisite attention to detail and genuine, heartwarming customer service more than makes up for frustrations about not being able to get a fix of Facebook every so often!

The questions I raise in this article are more about the structure of the travel industry in Japan and whether the country can really learn from what works elsewhere in order to help keep visitors satisfied.

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