Zuiganji Temple grounfs, MatsushimaAmid Japan's recovery from the most destructive earthquake and tsunami in its history, one that killed more than 15,000 people, the country's tourism industry has emerged as a bright spot.

Part of what makes that rebound notable is that Japan's tourism industry has historically been an economic weakness, lagging most of its less-developed neighbors long before the devastation of the March 2011 disaster. (Click here or on the images for a slideshow from Johanna's trip to Japan.) 

The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) predicts that foreign tourism to Japan, which plummeted by 62% immediately following the Tohoku earthquake, is set to fully recover by the first half of this year. In fact, the WTTC forecasts that international tourism will generate $129 billion in spending in Japan in 2012, compared with $128.5 billion in 2010.

But this impressive recovery does not change an underlying deficiency: Japan's tourism industry has long dragged far behind the levels one would expect of the world's third-largest economy.

Top 10 Asia-Pacific Countries For Intl Tourist ArrivalsIn 2010 -- a better measure of Japan's tourism than 2011, which was skewed by the tsunami -- Japan drew 8.6 million visitors, the eighth most in Asia, behind South Korea, Macau and Malaysia. (Click on the image, left, for a larger view of the top 10 Asia-Pacific countries for international arrivals in 2011.)

Mutsutake Otsuka, vice chairman of the East Japan Railway Co. and chairman of the Japanese Business Federation's tourism committee, said at the WTTC's summit in Tokyo in April that Japan was No. 30 in the world in inbound tourism.

"That's a sad number," he said.

Further, Japan suffers from a tourist deficit. Its inbound tourists numbers are sharply imbalanced with its outbound numbers: The WTTC report found that in 2010, 16.6 million Japanese went abroad.

Japan has been trying to narrow this gap for years, and its current visitor numbers are testament to some success it has had since 2003, when it launched an inbound tourism campaign. In 2002, only 5 million visitors traveled to Japan.

fish cake vendorThe WTTC gave Japanese leaders an opportunity to tell the world's tourism leaders that they are determined to improve their current position in world tourism, but also a chance to explain why they occupy it.

There are many reasons for Japan's historic difficulty attracting tourists.


One deterrent often cited is the perception that the country is very expensive. Another is that so few Japanese speak a language other than their own.

Beyond that, Japan has to contend with itself.

As Otsuka explained at the WTTC summit, after World War II, Japan was decimated. Reconstruction of its manufacturing sector was such a priority for so many years, there was no place for vacation.

"People felt diligence was a virtue, and fun was a vice," he said. "Recreation was laziness, sloth. That was the atmosphere in postwar era. Tourism was seen as pleasure-seeking and was looked down on."

Otsuka said that even though the situation has changed, and that each subsequent generation travels more than the prior one, it left Japan behind the curve in building an extensive and vibrant tourist sector.

Now, he said, it's more of a priority than ever.

"The government wants to promote tourism and position it as a pillar of growth," he said.

This was strongly indicated when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda made an appearance at the opening of the WTTC.

"Tourism is the frontier for Japan," Noda told the delegates.

"I am confident in the power of tourism," he said, adding that it was not only vital to world economies but that it "develops trust among people across borders."

Hirosaki Castle ParkKen Okuda, Japan's senior vice minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, told WTTC delegates that Japan had embarked on a series of initiatives to increase tourism, with the government recognizing that it represented a "star of hope" to a nation that has for almost two decades dealt with a stagnated economy.

Okuda said the government had earlier this year formulated a tourism act to expand its visitor base.

The main targets for Japan are its neighbors. Okuda noted that by 2030 the number of travelers from Asian countries is expected to grow to 480 million.

"It is important that we capture that rapidly expanding demand," he said.

The Japan National Tourist Office (JNTO) said the main focus of its increased marketing efforts were on Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as the U.S., from which Japan draws the most tourists outside of Asia.

The JNTO said it was conducting a variety campaigns in these markets.

China represents the greatest potential as a source market for Japan, and it has already helped increase Japan's visitor numbers greatly: In 2010, Chinese visitors to Japan topped 1 million, up from 350,000 10 years ago.

To attract more Chinese travelers, Japan recently relaxed its visa restrictions by, for example, lowering the salary requirements Chinese visitors must show they meet and allowing them to stay 30 days instead of 15.

And for Chinese visitors who go to regions that were hardest hit by the tsunami and earthquake in 2011, the government will issue multiple visas.

Okuda said Japan should also work to get more of the growing conference industry in Asia, which he said has doubled in past five years.

"We should undertake vigorous marketing and explore projects we have not addressed before," he said.

Japan has also taken steps to make it easier and less expensive for Asians to get there. In 2007, the Japanese government announced its Asian Gateway Initiative, introducing an Open Skies policy designed to pave the way for low-cost carriers to operate from Japan to other Asian countries.

A host of new, low-cost airlines will also help ease the cost of Japan's famously expensive domestic transportation.

Sendai mallThis year, Peach Aviation started domestic service, which, the New York Times reported, will include trips from Osaka to Sapporo "for less than $60, a sixth of what a train might cost."

In August, another Japanese low-cost carrier, Air Asia Japan, will start domestic services, and a third, Jet Star Japan, has not announced its official launch date.

The cost of traveling in Japan has long been considered one of the main deterrents to tourists. The yen, Japan's currency, has only grown stronger in the past decade, and Tokyo consistently tops annual lists of the world's most expensive cities.

Marta Visu, vice president of marketing and product development for Pacific Holidays, a leading Asia tour operator, said, "A lot of people look at it as a dream destination and want to go there, but the prices are very high. For culture tourists, this is one of the first places they want to go. But they push it back because of the price."

The structure of Japan's tourism products also adds to the cost. As Visu pointed out, Japan doesn't offer as much in terms of packages, the way other destinations do.

She noted Japan is bereft of "fly and drive" deals, or hotel passes that other countries often get together to allow visitors to stay at several properties during a stay at a discounted rate.

Komagatake Kanko HotelOne untapped element, she said, might be the ryokan, the traditional Japanese-style hotel. Visu suggested that Japan offer a "ryokan pass," similar to what Irish bed-and-breakfasts do. Such a pass, she said, coupled with a more affordable train pass, would attract a new kind of traveler to Japan.

"You don't see that kind packaging that makes it more affordable and appeals to younger travelers," Visu said. "You'd attract a different clientele. Only more upscale travelers can afford to spend $2,000 per couple for a week in Japan."

Some people say Japan's reputation for being expensive is only perception, and that like any major destination -- certainly similar to staying in cities like New York or London -- it is possible to spend a ton of money in Japan. But you can also spend much less if you know how to stretch your yen.

The author of the New York Times article, an American living in Kyoto, said that although the strong yen makes prices 50% higher than they were five years ago for those using dollars, Japan "is still less expensive than Britain or much of Northern Europe."

She said a pizza at her local coffee shop costs less than $5, and that a can of cappuccino from a vending machine is $1.50. She also noted that there are no taxes or tips added to the bills.

Yuki Tanaka, executive director of the JNTO, said American tourism to Japan has remained strong; it did not suffer as much as one might have expected. Though the yen has strengthened 1.5 times against the dollar in the past 10 years, the number of American tourists has not decreased.

Matsushima TempleShe said that "2010 is more or less the same as in 2002 and larger than in 2003. So at least in case of the U.S. market, a large part of the reason for stagnation of inbound [visitors] to Japan derives from the U.S. economic situation: the [number] of travelers moves in relation to real GDP."

Another barrier to international travelers is Japan's notoriously low English-speaking proficiency.

CNN reported in 2010 that Test of English as a Foreign Language rankings showed Japanese test takers scored second-lowest in East Asia, below North Korea and Myanmar and only better than Laos.

While most tourists do not expect the average Japanese to speak English, Chinese or Korean, the problem occurs when even people working in hospitality do not speak any language other than Japanese, which happens frequently in Japan.

In addition, there are many places where signs are also only in Japanese.

"It is still quite difficult to get much information in English," Tanaka said. However, she also noted that Japan is aggressively trying to change this.

Signage is now in four languages in all major transport hubs, including the bullet trains and subways.

cherry-tree bark artisanIn addition, the JNTO has established a nationwide network of 300 tourist information centers in all major destinations where foreign visitors can get information in English.

Another issue, which might surprise visitors who think of Japan as very technologically advanced, is that the country does not have widespread WiFi and in many cases lacks the ability to do basic transactions online.

"In this era of online services, unfortunately we don't follow the international trend and standards," Tanaka said. "It is almost impossible to book and buy train tickets online. Sometimes, you may find it hard to book accommodations."

Tanaka said that the situation has been improving. "The number of WiFi spots increased gradually," she said.

Follow Johanna Jainchill on Twitter @jjainchilltw. 

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