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Sunday, Nov. 9, 2008
Mighty yen scares off the tourists
California's tourism office didn't waste any time when the dollar sunk to new lows against the yen. For the past couple of weeks, commercial TV stations have aired ads for the Golden State featuring shots of its natural and man-made delights, capped with a personal message from the Governator himself. I can't understand the Japanese that Arnold Schwarzenegger mangles in his segment — or whether it is, in fact, Japanese — but the characteristic way he says "Kah-lee-for-nya" is perfect, since it's how most Japanese pronounce it, too.
Meanwhile, Japan's new Tourism Agency (JTA), which opened for business Oct. 1, gets the short end of the currency-exchange stick. It's too early to tell what effect the high yen will have on visitors from North America and Europe, but it's been a drag on tourism from Asia for a while now. According to the Hokkaido Shimbun, the number of foreign visitors to Japan in September was down almost 7 percent over the same month last year, the first time a year-on-year drop has exceeded 5 percent since 2003, when the threat of avian flu put a substantial brake on travel throughout Asia. The bulk of this loss is visitors from Korea and Taiwan, who together account for half of Japan's foreign tourism. The South Korean won, for instance, started slipping against the yen almost a year ago, and its value is now 30 percent lower than what it was at its peak.
The JTA projects that the situation will get worse before it gets better, which makes for an inauspicious start for the agency and, owing to the global financial crisis, one that it can't do anything about.
That, however, doesn't let JTA off the hook. As pointed out by a travel industry expert on a recent installment of NHK's Friday night news program "Tokuho Shutoken," the Japanese government's decision to finally establish a tourism office was "a bit late." France, the world's top tourist destination with 80 million visitors a year, set up a tourism- promotion organ 100 years ago. Obviously, the JTA isn't going to see results overnight, but right out of the gate the agency started making optimistic projections that no one takes seriously. A little more than 8 million people visited Japan last year and spent ¥1.6 trillion. JTA's goal is to increase these numbers to 10 million visitors and ¥4.3 trillion by 2010. The travel expert was too polite to shoot down these projections on air, but the Hokkaido Shimbun says that no one in the business believes them.
Japan didn't have a government tourism agency in the past because the idea of promoting Japan as a leisure destination smacked of third-world desperation. Japan believed it could always get by on its strong industrial base and diligent workforce. It didn't need to bring in foreign exchange through tourism, which is what many developing countries do. Consequently, Japan's foreign tourist infrastructure is underdeveloped. Everything is makeshift and local, meaning that foreign visitors have to rely on their own resourcefulness and must be willing to wing it when necessary.
There's nothing wrong with that. Much of the appeal of foreign travel derives from engaging directly with the natives and the environment in a spirit of adventure. But JTA's ideas do not take that into account.
The NHK report followed a woman who used to work for Japan Rail and is now in charge of JTA's promotional activities targeting Hong Kong. JTA believes that young Hong Kong women come to Japan to spend money on things they can't get at home, and so the agency is working with manufacturers to produce more such products as a lure for tourists, the idea being that the rest of China's 1.6 billion people will follow Hong Kong women to Tokyo to buy Hello Kitty goods.
This strategy is based on what Japanese people do when they go overseas. It's the rationale behind almost every travel show on TV: what to eat and buy in a foreign country. Though the Japanese penchant for package tours is often explained as a function of Japanese people's aversion to risk and unpredictability — a trait that is hardly exclusive to the Japanese — it probably has more to do with the kind of consumption mind-set that TV travel shows instill in viewers.
Risk and unpredictability seem to be more of a problem for the people who offer services here in Japan. A recent government survey, which found that more than 70 percent of Japanese inn operators aren't interested in entertaining foreign patrons, received worldwide media coverage. The response, however, seems to have more to do with laziness than with xenophobia. These inn operators don't want to learn foreign languages or otherwise adjust their protocols for the sake of non- Japanese guests.
That would seem to give JTA something constructive to work on, since one of its goals is to promote Japanese tradition and culture — which means helping tourists get out of Tokyo and into places where tradition and culture are more vital. The problem with regional tourism, according to the expert interviewed by NHK, is that there's no coordination among regions: a hot spring in Niigata can't tell a Russian visitor anything about hot springs in neighboring Gunma. There's even a lack of coordination in Tokyo. Backpackers who stay at the many cheap hotels in the Sanya district tend to arrive at the closest JR station, Minamisenju, and then promptly get lost, because Minamisenju is in Arakawa Ward and Sanya is in Taito Ward, which station maps don't cover.
This is the type of thing JTA needs to think about before it spends resources on "tourism ambassadors" (Hello Kitty, again). As a travel destination, Japan still has a reputation for being overpriced, difficult to navigate and culturally inscrutable. These are mostly myths, but myths that are easy to believe until this country has a suitable tourist infrastructure. And it will take more than two years — the time JTA has left to meet its goals — to put one in place.