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Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008

New tourism agency to act as policy 'control tower'

Staff writer

The Japan Tourism Agency will be established Wednesday with the aim of attracting more foreign tourists to the country.

News photo
Say cheese: Tourists pose for a photo at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, last month. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The number of travelers from abroad and their spending in Japan are on the rise, but with the economy on the verge of a recession, local businesses are depending more than ever on tourism as a source of income.

Experts say the new tourism agency will have to tackle several obstacles to bring in more travelers and boost local economies, including strict visa requirements, the lack of multilingual tourist information and what some people argue is the xenophobic mentality of the Japanese.

Government officials are expecting the new agency, which will be under the wing of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, to tackle all these problems.

"When considering the sources of our revenue, sightseeing is one major area" that Japan should focus on, said Masaharu Kubota, director of the planning office in the ministry's tourism policy division.

According to the ministry, ¥23.5 trillion was spent on domestic travel in fiscal 2006, while the impact of related spending was estimated at ¥52.9 trillion. Tourism accounted for the employment of 4.4 million people, comprising 6.9 percent of Japan's overall workforce, the ministry said.

"International tourism is an ultimate security" arrangement, Kubota said, arguing that expanding grassroots human exchanges between nations through tourism helps people learn more about each other and therefore contributes to world peace.

"It is imperative (for Japan) to build up the nation based on tourism," Kubota stressed.

To make Japan a tourism-oriented nation, the government last year set five primary goals, including raising the number of foreign travelers to 10 million by 2010.

Last year, the number had already risen to a record high 8.4 million, the ministry said.

To achieve the goals, the new Japan Tourism Agency needs to act like a "control tower" and coordinate the policies of the various ministries concerned with tourism, Kubota said.

Ahead of the agency's launch, expectations are high in various corners.

"Every country makes efforts to promote its own tourism industry," Haruka Nishimatsu, president and chief executive officer of Japan Airlines Corp., told a recent news conference. "It was a wonderful decision that the Japan Tourism Agency has been created, despite a recent government drive to streamline ministries."

Nishimatsu also praised the government's Visit Japan campaign.

"To powerfully promote this (measure to increase foreign tourists), we greatly welcome the tourism agency as a well-established institution to cope with (tourism)," Nishimatsu said.

Shuzo Ishimori, a professor and the director of Hokkaido University's Center for Advanced Tourism Studies, offered a similar view.

"In the Japanese government, tourism policies have been given comparatively low priority," Ishimori pointed out. "I have big expectations that tourism will be positioned high on the government's administrative agenda with the launch of the tourism agency."

To attract more foreign tourists, several practical measures need to be taken, according to the experts.

Nishimatsu said tourist information should be provided multilingually. "Since various people are coming (to Japan from other countries), we will have to establish a system so they will be able to get around not only in English but also in Korean, Mandarin or Cantonese," he said, adding that tourist guides should also be multilingual.

Hokkaido University's Ishimori agreed, and pointed out other problems.

For instance, Japan has a strict policy of issuing visas to foreign tourists, whereas short-term tourists from Japan can visit many countries without a visa, Ishimori said.

Visa exemptions, or at least simplifying the procedures for issuing visas, is necessary, he said.

Behind the restrictive immigration measures lies the xenophobia of many Japanese people, according to Ishimori.

A recent opinion poll found that almost one-third of Japanese do not want the numbers of foreign tourists to increase, and more than half of the respondents answered that visa exemptions or procedural simplification is not necessary for travelers, Ishimori said.

"While repeating the 'internationalization' of Japan like a mantra, the mind-set is still extremely inward-looking," he noted. "When our counterparts exempt visas (for Japanese tourists), we are expected to exempt (visas) for them" in return.

The Japan Tourism Agency will be tasked with clearing these hurdles, Ishimori stressed.

"Only Japan is closing its doors," he said. "But now we are not in a situation where we can close the doors to foreigners."

The new agency will need to address the question of how to open up Japan and change the public's mind-set, he said.

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