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Sunday, Nov. 23, 2008

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Looking for ways to lure more visitors to these shores


By TOMOKO OTAKE and EDAN CORKILL
Staff writers

What are people who work in the domestic tourism industry — from tour operators to inn owners to regional tourism promotion offices — doing to attract foreign visitors? Here are the voices of marketers from across Japan:

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Akiko Fujisawa

Hokkaido's main visitors

Have you heard rumors that Hokkaido is full of Western skiiers? Step outside of ski town Niseko and the vast majority of foreign tourists to the northern island are in fact from Asia. Half of those who go to Sapporo are from Taiwan, while visitors from Hong Kong and Korea — from where there are also direct flights — fill out the top three. "Skiers have a lot of baggage, so they tend not to travel too much beyond the ski resorts," says Akiko Fujisawa, from the Tourism and Cultural Affairs Bureau of Sapporo City. Fujisawa says visitors from warmer countries in South East Asia are particularly interested in Hokkaido's cold winters and snow. "Many of them see snow for the first time here," she says. But other seasons are popular with Asian visitors, too. "Korean couples come for 'hiking dates' and golf, Taiwanese come to see the flowers in spring, and Chinese come for the seafood," she reports. www.welcome.city.sapporo.jp

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Ross Carty

Hitting the outdoors

Ross Carty came to Japan in 1989 to work in the local ski patrol. He got into the adventure-travel business in 1993, with the aim of introducing to the Japanese the pleasures of white-water rafting, snowshoe tours, abseiling and other outdoor sports. "We did the first bungee jump in Japan," he reports. His company, NOASC Adventure Tours, now brings about 20,000 people to sports destinations in Hokkaido each year. Visitors from overseas make up about 1,000 of that total — a number Carty hopes to increase in the future. He says most growth will come from Asia. "In China, it was golf at first; skiing will come next," he says, predicting a boom in the sport. As of last year Carty has been invited by JNTO to give presentations about Japan's tourist destinations overseas. "I'll be in Sydney at the end of November giving a presentation," he reports. www.noasc.com

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Nahoko Harazawa

Russians hit the slopes

Naeba Prince Hotel in the ski resort of Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, has enjoyed a boom in Russian tourists, who in last year's ski season numbered about 2,500, according to officials of the hotel. Many of them are family groups and typically fly in from Niigata Airport, spend a few days skiing, then go on a sightseeing tour of Tokyo for a few days, and then back to Niigata to fly out. "It's pretty much through word of mouth," says an official of the hotel. Nahoko Harazawa, an official of the Yuzawa Town Tourism Association, expressed hope that the Russian boom will eventually spill over to the neighboring areas. The association has also recently created Chinese and Korean leaflets, each with a different look. Many Korean visitors have a somewhat romantic idea of the snow and are familiar with "Snow Country," a 1935 epic novel by Yasunari Kawabata, which is based in Yuzawa, Harazawa said. So the Korean-language version of the Yuzawa guide features a picture that conjures up a scene from the novel on its cover. The Chinese-language guide has a more flashy look, using lots of red and yellow, reflecting the town's attempt to match the taste of Chinese people, Harazawa said.

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Yuji Saiki

Taiwanese tourists a boon

Kusatsu, a major hot-spring resort town in Gunma Prefecture, is deepening ties with Taiwan, whose people also have a hot-spring culture. Yuji Saiki, an official of the Kusatsu Now Resort Hotel, says his hotel receives about 4,000 Taiwanese guests a year, which account for 80 to 90 percent of all foreign guests there. He attributes the trend to its long-running efforts to attract foreigners. "We have been promoting inbound for seven or eight years and have been going to expos in Taiwan and China," Saiki says. "Because the town now has so many guests from Taiwan, a Taiwanese tour agent recently proposed that we create Taiwan Day and to hold Taiwanese cultural festivals in the town." Saiki says his hotel hangs flags of several nations at the entrance to show that his is a foreigner-friendly hotel, noting that it also has Australian and Chinese staff.

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Akira Shimo

Industrious ideas

The city of Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture, has long tried to woo tourists with its traditional sightseeing spots, such as shrines, without much success. Akira Shimo, a retired businessman and guest researcher at Kashima Research Center at Ibaraki University, says that the city can instead capitalize on the Kashima seaside steel and petrochemical industrial complex and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in nearby Tsukuba. Shimo says he wants to promote the city as a center of high technology, in hopes of attracting school trips from the rest of Asia, particularly China. Foreign students can combine visits to such facilities with trips to Disneyland or to Hakone and Nikko, which are not too far away. He also wants to create opportunities for such students to interact with local schoolchildren, to promote cultural exchange. Shimo says the city wants to launch the program next spring.

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Bodhi Fishman

Kyoto's old homes

Four years ago, author Alex Kerr set up a new venture, Iori, whereby traditional houses — machiya — in the ancient capital would be restored and rented to high-end foreign visitors. "Iori currently has nine houses," explains Bodhi Fishman, a consultant with the related Origin cultural-experiences group. "Each machiya has broadband access and all the amenities of home, but at the same time provides a unique cultural experience," he says. English-speaking staff are also on hand to advise on sightseeing and dining options. Iori is positioned within the luxury-tourism market, an area that Fishman says is still underdeveloped in Japan. "Japan is capable of attracting such tourists," he says, "but at the moment, most places don't have enough English speakers to deal properly with normal foreign visitors. How can they expect to deal with luxury visitors?" www.kyoto-machiya.com

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Daiji Yamashita

Tottori-Asia direct

The opening in 2002 of Yonago airport to direct flights to China, South Korea and Russia allowed for the first influx of foreign visitors to Tottori Prefecture, in western Honshu. "We focused on attracting visitors from Korea," says Daiji Yamashita, from the prefecture's Global Marketing Section. They now make up the bulk of the prefecture's estimated 15,000 to 18,000 annual intake. Coordinating with neighboring Shimane Prefecture — famous for its Izumo Shrine — Tottori positions itself as a nature haven, with its famous giant sand dunes as the trump card. "The Koreans also enjoy the cheap golf," Yamashita reports. But recently something else has attracted their attention. "Last year, for the first time, the Mizuki Shigeru Museum got more visitors than the sand dunes," says Yamashita. Dedicated to the creator of "Ge-Ge-Ge no Kitaro" and other manga, the museum (in Sakaiminato) is popular with South Korean and domestic tourists alike.

Experience-based tours

Longtime outbound tour operator H.I.S. entered the inbound market in earnest in April 2007 with the opening of its H.I.S. Experience Japan subsidiary. "At the time most inbound operators were just doing the so-called golden route — Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, etc.," says Senior Director Takeshi Komiya. He and his team opted to provide more experience-based tours. "In the age of the Internet, people who are interested in Japanese culture can find out just about anything online. It's hands-on experience that they can only get in Japan," he explains. His tour-planning officer, Yukie Ookama, says the company started out with the "obvious cultural icons — sumo, sushi and so on." It seems participants were impressed. Sales increased 11-fold from the April-September period last year to the October 2007-September 2008 period. "The weekly sumo tour is always full," says Ookama. "The participants get to watch the training at a sumo stable and share a meal with the young wrestlers." The samurai-sword action tour is also popular. "The tour is led by the man who choreographed the sword-fight scenes in the 'Kill Bill' movies," she continues. Komiya says the majority of tour participants are from the United States, Britain and Australia, but he thinks future growth will come from continental Europe and English-speaking Asian nations such as Singapore. "If it becomes easier for Chinese visitors to come to Japan we might end up offering experiential tours in Chinese, too," he says. hisexperience.jp

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Yoshihiko Kajita

Home stays in Japan

A home stay in Japan can be as easily accessible as visiting a maid cafe in Akihabara or soaking in an onsen, according to Succeo Co., a home-staying agency based in Tokyo. The company, which has long arranged home stays for Japanese youths going overseas, started the inbound business in July 2007. It now has about 200 foreign users a year. Home stays can be arranged even for one night, and can be combined with sightseeing tours or studying at Japanese-language schools, said Yoshihiko Kajita, director of the firm's international relations division. Kajita says the biggest challenge for the growth of inbound tourism is finding Japanese people willing to be registered as host families here, as a majority of people are still not used to the idea of hosting foreign guests in their homes. Many hosts are people in their 30s and 40s who have experienced home staying abroad when they were younger and feel that they want to repay the hospitality they received, he says. www.succeo.net

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Tad Shimotakehara

Cruise to Kagoshima

Ibusuki's Kagoshima Prefecture, in Kyushu, has long been a popular domestic tourist destination, and the Ibusuki Hakusuikan, a sprawling ryokan that has reinvented itself as a high-end luxury resort, is its crown jewel. Tad Shimotakehara took over management of the facility from his father four years ago, after a successful career at the giant trading company Mitsubishi Corp. He put his business skills to work, helping the local government set up the Kagoshima Marine Port — large enough to handle modern cruise ships. The port opened in April and immediately attracted boats that would otherwise bypass Japan on routes between the U.S. and the rest of Asia. Shimotakehara says the passengers don't stay overnight, but they do enjoy a day in port. "The Chinese go shopping; the Westerners seek out cultural attractions," he says. By the end of the year, 2,000 of them will have had lunch at his hotel. www.hakusuikan.co.jp

Related stories:
Japan looks beyond tourism's 'Golden Route'
Where are world's 'targeted' tourists visiting in Japan?



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