Industry October 2014

Experiences, not attractions

Tapping into Japan’s potential as a global destination

  • Economic realities spawn move to expand inbound tourism
  • Flexibility crucial to success in attracting overseas tourists
  • Experiences increasingly seen winning out over attractions

At 10am the doors swung open. Over the next four days, on 25–28 September, the best part of 157,000 people made their way to Tokyo’s Big Sight exhibition space. And why was this? Tourism.

Specifically, to attend the Tourism Expo Japan. Hosted by the Japan Association of Travel Agents, the annual event caters for business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets.

There were exhibitors in attendance from all over the world. Even smaller countries, typically not known as tourist destinations, such as the Republic of Yemen and State of Palestine, were in on the action with exhibitor stands. Were these nations optimistic about their attractiveness to holidaymakers?

Probably. But, the tourism industry is inherently optimistic. After all, it is an industry built to satisfy “dreams of far off places”.

Parking dreams for the moment, let’s talk numbers. In 2011, international tourism receipts—the travel component of balance of payments—was £636bn. In the UK, domestic and international tourism accounted for 9% of gross domestic product.

In 2013, some 221,000 Japanese visited the UK, each spending an average of £1,000. Work done by Oxford Economics, a respected leader in global forecasting and quantitative analysis, estimates that for every £54,000 of tourism spend, one new full-time position in the UK is created. Thus, last financial year, Japanese visitors created well over 4,000 jobs across the country.

Therefore, the economic value of tourism should not be underestimated. This is something that governments of all countries are coming to clearly understand.

In the past, Japan’s government has been perhaps a little slow in recognising the value of inbound tourism. However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set a target for the country of annually welcoming 20mn visitors by 2020.

In 2013, the number of inbound visitors reached a record high of 10mn, meaning the goal of doubling the number in six years is extraordinarily aggressive. Speaking of the government’s work in relation to Tokyo 2020, VisitBritain Chairman Christopher Rodrigues CBE said that if Japan is to achieve that visitor target by 2020 then, “the Olympics will be easy by comparison” (see page 34).

Many non-Japanese who have lived in the country for some time understand the huge potential Japan has as a tourist destination: the sheer diversity of scenery from Okinawa Prefecture in the south to Hokkaido Prefecture in the north; as well as the many matsuri (festivals), both local and national, large and small.

The kindness that the Japanese show to lost-looking tourists is the stuff of expat legend. Omotenashi (the art of Japanese hospitality) was an important factor in Tokyo being awarded the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. In fact, Japanese standards of service are among the highest in the world.

However, the Japanese tourism market is still heavily geared to a domestic audience; one that is fairly homogenous with similar requirements and tastes. The international tourism market is, by definition, diverse. It has infinite tastes and requirements. Omotenashi “by the book” will not work. Flexibility in both service and process is the key to success in international tourism.

Finally, tourists do not travel 12 hours by plane between the UK and Japan to see a tourism product such as The Shard in London or Tokyo Skytree. They travel these distances to experience the country. While high quality attractions such as these are important, they need to be part of a broader experience.

Locally, firms such as Walk Japan Ltd. and Vesperience Ltd. in the UK are selling the experience over the product. As the international traveller becomes increasingly more sophisticated, businesses selling experiences that last are likely to be the most successful.

To achieve its 20mn target, the Japanese government will need to show clearly the breadth and depth of experience that this wonderful country has to offer the international tourist.