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Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011

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Customer relations: Ski lodge owner Toshihiro Okazaki (standing) chats in English with guests from Hong Kong at his inn in the Zao ski area in Yamagata Prefecture last month. KYODO PHOTO

Yamagata's Zao ski resort courts Asian tourists

YAMAGATA (Kyodo) Businesses around the ski area in the middle of the Zao mountains in Yamagata Prefecture are hard at work trying to attract Asian tourists to offset the declining number of Japanese skiers.

Staff are learning foreign languages and trying to acquire skills to better serve the needs of foreign customers in hopes they will also lure back Japanese tourists after honing their customer-service skills.

One day in December, about a dozen employees from area inns gathered in a conference room at Yamagata Prefecture's tourist industry association and chanted in unison "an-nyong-ha-se-yo" (Korean for "welcome"). They were attending one of the language classes sponsored by the prefectural government to teach staff key phrases in Korean and Chinese.

According to the Zao hot springs association, the number of foreign visitors has been rising steadily and topped 1,000 every month of last year's ski season.

About 90 percent of them were Asians, including South Koreans and Taiwanese. Most were independent travelers who had come to enjoy skiing and the sight of Zao's trees completely covered with white ice.

It is not uncommon for Lodge Chitose-ya, a small inn that accommodates up to 20 guests, to be fully booked by foreign tourists. Its 69-year-old owner, Toshihiro Okazaki, recently began taking English classes and learned to write e-mails in English to foreigners requesting reservations.

Five inns run by the Takamiya Hotel Group are staffed with workers who speak Korean and Chinese. The group has also set up money-exchange counters for Koreans because nearby banks don't handle the South Korean currency.

Authorities are supporting the tourist industry by putting up signs and maps in foreign languages, but the resort apparently needs to do much more to satisfy foreign visitors.

A 36-year-old man from Hong Kong, for example, complained he missed an opportunity to use a Jacuzzi because there were no user instructions in English. An Australian woman said she found it inconvenient that only a few shops accept credit cards.

Despite occasional mixups that occur due to inexperience, Yaheiji Okazaki, president of the Takamiya Hotel Group, said serving foreign customers will be a plus for his firm's overall business.

"The quality of our hotel service will improve as we learn to treat them attentively," he said.



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