Arnie WeissmannWhen I was in Tokyo two weeks ago, I arranged to interview Atsutoshi Nishida, chairman of Toshiba Corp.

Why would a travel journalist want to speak with the chairman of an electronics company? And vice versa?

Nishida, I had learned, is also chairman and CEO of the public-private Japan Travel and Tourism Association. The dual role struck me as peculiar. After all, he has a daunting full-time day job. And it struck me as more peculiar still after he admitted to me during the interview that he doesn't really have a passion for travel.

He took on the role -- he was "forced" to, he told me -- after a former government minister, whose portfolio included tourism at the time, asked for him to step in.

But after speaking with Nishida for close to an hour, I understood why the government turned to him: His deep understanding of globalization helps him see, as perhaps a more parochial tourism insider couldn't, the interconnected nature of economies and the role governments can play to support businesses that contribute to their gross national product.

Nishida commented that unless government supports tourism, "I don't think it will grow very rapidly." Japan, he said, didn't focus on tourism until 10 years ago, when they finally "recognized how important the tourism industry is for growth of the Japanese economy. But compared to other advanced countries, we were very late. Even compared to China or Korea, we are a latecomer."

(Perhaps the chairman would have felt better had he compared Japan to the U.S.: We launched our first comprehensive marketing campaign a week ago.)

Nishida pointed to Thailand as an example of how activist government policy in support of tourism can strengthen a national economy.

"Thailand is No. 1 for medical tourism, and I admire their strategy," he said. "Their medical technology was not very high. They did not have a sufficient number of doctors. But they put world-class medical equipment in their hospitals. They employed foreign doctors, and while these doctors were serving, they sent their own students to the USA and other countries to go to medical school. They're now coming back as doctors."

The result: "On a worldwide basis, there are 6 million medical tourists visiting various countries," he said. "Of those, 2 million are going to Thailand. No. 2 is Singapore, with 650,000 tourists. India and USA are No. 3, with about 450,000 each. In the case of Japan, the number of medical tourists is very small, even though our level of medical technology is very high.

"Thailand's 2 million is incredible. It shows very clearly that even if you don't have the technology, once a government focuses on one area and has not just passion but an iron will, and is willing to execute over many years, something significant can be done."

Japanese tourism efforts are currently focused on providing direct assistance to the prefectures that were impacted by last year's tsunami and toward sending the message, worldwide, that Japan is a safe country to visit, he said.

I was in Japan primarily to attend the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit (Nishida was chairman of the host committee). During the conference, I heard many more voices attacking governments over regulation and taxes than calling for the type of pro-tourism policy Nishida has high regard for in Thailand.

Nishida's view of encouraging aggressive government support reminded me that when an industry is in crisis, as Japan's tourism industry is, government intervention is viewed not just as a positive, but as a necessity. I recall when, after 9/11, the same airline industry that lambasted government interference at the summit had wasted no time seeking, and securing, governmental subsidies.

The relationship between the travel industry and governments is extraordinarily complex. Anyone who takes the position that we require neither regulation nor supportive policy is mistaken.

As is anyone, incidentally, who believes there is a specific formula to determine the correct balance between the two. The public-private relationship is unendingly dynamic, influenced by the present as much as the future, by local needs as much as shifting global circumstances. Going forward, it may not seem so peculiar that nontravel people like Nishida, who have an outsized understanding of private enterprise, governments, globalization and local need, take an increasingly high-profile role in our industry.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.

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