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Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2008

In tough economic times, tourism boss finds visitor boost a tall order

Staff writer

Japan's ailing regional economies can be revitalized by tapping the sightseeing potential of growing Asian countries, according to Japan Tourism Agency Commissioner Yoshiaki Hompo.

News photo
Tall order: Japan Tourism Agency Commissioner Yoshiaki Hompo is interviewed recently in Tokyo. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

China will be a vital market, and Hompo's agency is now in talks with other government bodies to gradually ease rules for issuing visas to Chinese tourists, he said during a recent interview in Tokyo.

Hompo also said the Japanese are not exclusionist and boasted the country has a unique natural and cultural diversity.

The agency was launched last month as part of efforts to draw 20 million foreign tourists by 2020, far beyond the 8.4 million who visited last year.

"Because the nation's population is declining, Japan as a whole is increasingly aware that it must vitalize its regions by expanding exchanges, and some municipalities are desperate," the new agency chief said.

Hompo hopes that despite the yen's recent appreciation, Chinese, South Koreans, Taiwanese and Singaporeans will boost travel to Japan in the future.

Those parts of Asia with high growth potential must be included in Japan's economic growth strategy, he said. Sightseeing can be a crucial and effective way to serve these goals, he stressed.

Hompo said he is proud of Japan's unique tourism resources.

"Japan has been taking in both Western and Oriental cultures in its own way, so we now have an extremely diverse culture," Hompo boasted.

"We have diversity that even Europe and Asia do not possess. It is a distinguishable feature of Japanese tourism resources," Hompo said.

To draw 20 million tourists, the agency said Japan will need to attract around 6 million from China, which is far more than the 900,000 who visited last year.

"We will not be able to achieve that if we do not ease visa" restrictions for travelers from China, Hompo said, adding, however, the government will ease them gradually.

Experts are recommending streamlining the visa process or offering exemptions in certain cases to attract more visitors.

While boasting attractive tourism resources, and ambitious goals, the surging yen and recent world economic turmoil have cast a dark shadow on the market, Hompo conceded.

In September, the number of foreign tourists to Japan fell almost 7 percent from a year earlier to 611,500. South Korean travelers plunged more than 20 percent to 159,500.

"We have to be ready for this situation possibly continuing," Hompo said.

But he remains optimistic as he said many foreign tourists have been choosing Japan in recent years.

Hompo said the agency will accelerate coordination with other ministries on easing visa restrictions for Chinese tourists.

"Easing visa (restrictions) has apparently quick effects" in bringing in more foreign tourists, he said.

While some may argue that many Japanese are xenophobic, Hompo said Japan will welcome foreign tourists with hearty hospitality.

"I do not necessarily think (Japanese) are exclusive in general," Hompo said. "I wonder if anywhere else has people with this abundant hospitable mentality."

The agency is in charge of implementing measures to turn Japan into a more tourism-oriented nation. It promotes the Visit Japan campaign, which publicizes appeals overseas for people to visit Japan and take in its natural scenery, modern metropolises and traditional enclaves.

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