Hawaii takes in plenty of Japanese tourists, and benefits from the money they spend.

But we might want to take a few tips from the Land of the Rising Sun’s own tourism market improvements. The visitor industry is, after all, our economic driver.

In 2013, Japan topped 10 million international visitors for the first time, reaching the government’s official target. For 2014, the Transport Ministry says, preliminary figures show more than 13 million visitors, shattering the previous year’s record by 30 percent.

Part of Japan’s recent success in boosting tourism definitely relates to a yen that’s fallen in value by about 10 percent over the past year. But that’s far from the only factor that has helped Japan. What Japan is good at — and this is something that very much interests travel professionals in Hawaii — is drawing visitors from Asia.

The skyline of Tokyo, Japan

The skyline of Tokyo, Japan, where tourism authorities have been very good at drawing more visitors from Asia.

Bill Dorman

Japan’s government wants to draw 20 million visitors a year by the time Tokyo hosts the Olympics in 2020. Those numbers sound ambitious, but they’re not overwhelming in the increasingly competitive market for global tourism where, for example, France hosts some 83 million foreign visitors a year. The recent success, and the hope for so many more visitors, is possible thanks to a transformation in Japan’s approach and attitude toward the business of international travel.

The last time Tokyo hosted the Olympics was 1964 and the government’s official tally for international visitors was roughly 350,000. Tourism remained relatively slow over the following decades.

When I first lived in Tokyo in the early to mid-1990s, the annual number of visitors had climbed to more than 3.3 million which, seen from today, is relatively small business. And with the exception of a handful of big-city hotels and certain traditional “ryokan” inns, non-Japanese speaking visitors had to work a bit to find bilingual help. Even on the subways of Tokyo, a “foreign-looking” visitor sometimes drew stares.

Foreign visitors who seek out and enjoy the experiences of Japan are also likely to feel quite comfortable in Hawaii.

A decade later, the annual visitor numbers had doubled, but certain aspects of the visitor economy were slow to evolve.

Over the last several years, the industry’s reaction time has picked up considerably — something we might learn from.

An elaborate eight-floor structure of glass, wood and steel now towers above Tokyo’s old downtown near the Sensoji Buddhist Temple, originally built in the sixth century. The Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center was completed in 2012, and offers information pamphlets in English, French, Chinese, and South Korean. Plus Thai, Indonesian and Malay.

In recent years, the Japanese government has eased visa restrictions for visitors from several Southeast Asian nations. It has also lowered the minimum income requirements needed to obtain a tourist visa from China. The combination has produced regional results: last October, the Japan Tourism Marketing Company reports nearly two-thirds of all international visitors came from Asia.

While culture and history may be a draw for many, on a recent weekday on the main shopping street of Ginza, luxury commerce was an even bigger attraction. A bus full of Mandarin-speaking Chinese visitors was parked outside a major department store, whose plate glass windows sported shiny logos advertising the fact that China’s popular “UnionPay” credit card would be gladly accepted inside.

Just a couple of years ago, a story in a local Honolulu newspaper told of a wealthy Chinese visitor disgustedly walking away from thousands of dollars of merchandise she had started to purchase because her UnionPay card was not welcome, so neither were her shopping aspirations.

Japan has made sure the building blocks of international commerce are securely in place, and has taken steps to make sure that global consumers can rely on a financial infrastructure of easy cross-border payments all over the country.

And it’s not just the government. The success of custom-tailored “travel experiences” has helped entrepreneurs like Masashi Takahashi, whose “Voyagin” website connects curious visitors with local vendors, all in various languages. They have made it easier for visitors eager to share “authentic activities” that range from a tour of Tokyo’s Akihabara district with one’s own “personal maid” to decorating your mobile phone “in J-POP style,” or shopping for electronics with an “ex-sales clerk.”

Despite continuing political tension between governments, tourism in Japan remains especially popular with Chinese visitors. The travel services company Travel Zoo Asia Pacific recently asked some 4,300 Chinese travelers about their preferences and found 40 percent rated Japan as one of their top destination choices for 2015, up from about 29 percent just last year.

Just last week, the Japanese Consulate General in Shanghai said it issued more than 874,000 visas in 2014. That’s nearly two and a half times the pace of a year ago. Government officials say the visas issued in Shanghai generally represent 30 to 40 percent of the national total. Which means the sheen of Japan’s brand is retaining its appeal in China.

And that’s potentially important for Hawaii. Foreign visitors who seek out and enjoy the experiences of Japan are also likely to feel quite comfortable in Hawaii. When asked what they like about Japan, Chinese visitors frequently cite shopping and safety. Toss in marketing bullet points about clean air and relatively non-strenuous access to nature, and they might be talking about Hawaii. And that’s without even mentioning the beach.

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About the Author

  • Bill Dorman
    Bill Dorman is News Director at Hawaii Public Radio. He lived and worked in Asia for 10 years, covering stories from more than a dozen countries and territories for CNN and Bloomberg News. His broadcast experience also includes work in New York and Washington, D.C. His “Asia Minute” feature can be heard weekday mornings on HPR.