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Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

Tourist push eyes inconveniences

Foreign visitors invited to assess travel infrastructure shortcomings

Kyodo News

On her first visit to Japan, Kimberley Marston from Australia found herself at a loss after getting off a tramway in central Matsuyama one clear day in mid-November.

News photo
Taking in the sights: Australian Kimberley Marston visits Matsuyama Castle in Ehime Prefecture last month during a tour organized by the Tourism Agency to evaluate the infrastructure for foreign visitors. KYODO PHOTO

Marston, 25, could not at first find any signs giving directions to Matsuyama Castle, a must-see tourist spot in the capital of Ehime Prefecture. After passing by a sign written in Japanese, she finally found one in English and said she wished she could have found it much earlier.

She was one of several foreign tourists who participated in a Tourism Agency program this fall to assess tourism infrastructure for those not accustomed to traveling around Japan — a country that doesn't usually figure high on the list of global travelers' favorite destinations.

Japan had 6.79 million visitors from abroad in 2009, putting it at No. 33 on the global list and No. 8 in Asia — not a very good result considering the nation's economic might.

The government has targeted boosting the count to 25 million by 2019, with an ultimate goal of crossing the 30 million threshold.

The feedback program was designed to help achieve this goal. The Tourism Agency recruited dozens of foreigners who had never been to Japan and asked them to visit 10 locations throughout the country. They were then asked to offer their views and comments, focusing mainly on the inconveniences they encountered.

In the end, Marston reached Matsuyama Castle after taking a cable car and was happy to experience the sights she had expected in Japan. Her advice to the agency was that more directions in English would help foreigners visiting a city that she found very attractive.

The Matsuyama tour had eight people, including visitors from China and South Korea. One participant found it difficult to wear a Japanese bathrobe, while another said that when it came to directions there were too few signs with languages other than English.

An official at Matsuyama's tourism promotion division apparently took the advice to heart, saying, "We thought we had signboards in foreign languages installed near most major facilities, but we are not yet perfect."

As part of efforts to welcome visitors to Japan, the Tourism Agency has been working to ease the requirements for professional tour guides, which are set by law. Currently, guides are required to pass tough examinations about the country as well as meet language qualifications.

The agency's plan is to give one kind of qualification to guides who have taken part in training sessions by local governments or travel agencies. The move is intended to boost the number of Chinese-speaking guides, who are in overwhelming demand.

This move isn't very popular with people who have passed the rigorous tests.

"Inadequate knowledge would not allow us to introduce Japan in the right manner," said Masashi Negishi, managing director and secretary general of the Japan Guide Association.

Information technology is also being employed to address the shortage of guides for non-Japanese speakers.

In Okinawa Prefecture, a test project is under way to provide free smart phones to foreign tourists on sightseeing trips.

The phones can be used to access information in English, Chinese and Korean on sightseeing spots and directions, in addition to serving as a guide to local eateries.

It can likewise be used to contact the project's call center via its camera phone for advice in the three languages. Japanese tourists who find themselves in a bind can also use the device.

The prefecture has so far provided 100 smart phones at Naha airport and 100 more at restaurants and hotels.

"It takes time to build infrastructure (such as signposts) and nurture guides and other skills, but digital devices enable us to set up infrastructure within a limited time," an official with the project said.

A central government official who oversaw the Matsuyama tour project also noted the importance of welcoming foreigners, citing an employee at the Dogo hot spring resort who was trying to communicate through gestures with a foreign tourist.

"Signs in multiple languages are important, but I think even if there were none, it wouldn't necessarily mean the end (of communication)," he said.

Hiroshi Mizohata, commissioner of the Tourism Agency, admitted Japan has been slow to promote tourism for foreigners.

"We started making full-fledged moves only a few years ago," he said. "Japanese service industries are well developed, so I believe substantial enhancements will be made to arrangements for welcoming them if we are given about three years."

Mizohata added he is hopeful that a change in the attitude of some people in Japan can take place.

"Even without signs, a smile from a person and a willingness to speak (to foreigners) will create a hospitable environment. I hope to continue striving to open up the country to the world," he said.

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