Free tours and fine dining are among a raft of new product offerings driving up tourist numbers to Japan.
When the venerable Guide Michelin awarded Tokyo more stars than the world’s gastronomic capital Paris, interest in the Asian giant peaked around the world.
But the ensuing increase in tourists is as much a function of increased liquidity in its key Asia-Pacific source market and new connections from markets such as the Middle East. The rapid development of countries like China, South Korea, India and the Gulf states has created a new travelling middle class that has done the iconic capitals of New York, London and Paris, and is looking for exotic new cultures to fuel its wanderlust. The number of visitors from South Korea, Taiwan, China and Hong Kong almost doubled last year from five years earlier, to 5.36 million, according to the government-run Japan National Tourist Organisation.
Paradoxically, among the popular draws in Japan are activities at opposite ends of the spectrum. Shopping ranks high on the list of things to do in Japan, as does an increasing tourist interest in its mountains and remote forests.
But the JNTO has been doing its own bit to promote tourism, ever since 2003, when it announced the goal of 10 million visitors in 2010, or double that year’s figures. The authority has been a regular at the Arabian Travel Market for the last three years now, for instance. It has also started marketing low seasons to regular source markets: it’s Yokoso! Japan Weeks offer several cultural events, time limited discounts in mid winter, promoting the cold season as a top time for tourism, with major landmarks allowing tourists more space and time to enjoy tourism sites, as well as better accessibility to accommodation, transportation and public facilities.
New tours also tap special interest groups: Trips International offers anime and manga fans an unrivalled opportunity to both discover and study the Japanese animation art form.
And this May, the Japanese character Hello Kitty was named the country's new tourism ambassador to China and Hong Kong. The much loved fictional character even made her Middle East debut last year, with a stage show in Dubai.
The JNTO is also organising value added services such as free walking tours on weekends. As little as three people can register for a free tour of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, for example. Similar itineraries are available in Kyoto and Nagoya.
Japan expects to attract nine million tourists this year, up from last year’s 8.3 million. The aim is to reach 10 million by next year.
In the first quarter of 2008, it clocked 3.6 million visitors, an increase of 10 per cent over last year.
By Clark Kelly
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