Discovering the Silk Road from where it started

As the emerging outbound markets have, understandably, grabbed the headlines in recent years due to their strong growth, it’s easy to overlook the fact that on the whole Japanese travellers have always been loyal, high-spending and relatively adventurous.

With a ‘travel career’ many years ahead of their Asian neighbours, Japanese travellers are older, more mature and looking to move beyond their more familiar long haul markets. Partly for this reason, and due to greater ease of access, greater numbers of Japanese outbound travellers have started to visit destinations along the Silk Road. Invited by UNWTO, which has a project to encourage partnerships among all in the tourism industry along the Silk Road, I joined a panel event held at JATA Expo Tokyo 2014 which turned up some interesting facts…

Stretching from Japan through to Italy (though there were many more places associated with the trade of Silk and other goods along the route), the Silk Road project spearheaded by UNWTO seeks to unite the destinations along the route around the common causes of boosting their economies through increasing tourism access, improving visa facilitation and gaining greater exposure to the key outbound source markets.

The aim of this seminar was to encourage more Japanese outbound operators to take an interest in Silk Road destinations and for those operators who were based along the route to discuss how government agencies could help them more in their promotion and management efforts.

In debating how to attract and retain Japanese visitors, naturally the discussion turned to the characteristics of the outbound Japanese market, and visitor profiles. Operators running tours on all parts of the Silk Road were able to confirm that the Japanese value the chance to see cultural artefacts (especially UNESCO World Heritage monuments) very highly. As confirmed by Peter Wong, Executive Chairman of the China Chamber of Tourism, they also leap at the chance to stay in hotels and guesthouses that have character themselves, especially if they are also listed monuments.

Current political tensions between Japan and China aren’t helping visitor flows to the Chinese sections of the Silk Road due to increased visa restrictions, however many other countries have improved access with either no requirement to obtain visas before departure (eg. Georgia) or e-visa schemes on arrival. It’s normal for even first-time visitors to try to visit 2-3 countries in one visit, so ease of access is important.

Aside from the thorny issue of visa facilitation, tour operators expressed their desire for more support from national tourism administrations with running familiarization tours for the Japanese travel media.

One theme that all presenters highlighted was travellers’ increased desire for authenticity of experiences at all stages of their journey. Silk Road destinations offer this in bucketloads, with operators understanding the need for local people to meet visitors, share their traditions (crafts, food) with guests. However, as Peter Wong pointed out, authenticity is something that is easily snuffed out as some Chinese cities are particularly good at building ‘white elephants in the desert’, hoping to recreate entire European villages or Egyptian temples. This is clearly something to be avoided at all costs.

 

If access and facilities continue to improve along the Silk Road (with local people involved at every step) this is something that should bode well for attracting greater numbers of Millennial, Gen C Travellers, in addition to the greater numbers of predominantly older Japanese travellers who are visiting.

To learn more about the UNWTO’s programme for assisting Silk Road destinations click here.

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