On September 12th I had the opportunity to attend the 9th Spa Symposium at Tokyo Big Sight convention center to hear a talk on Schemes to Make Japan a Tourist Destination by Yuya Ota of the Japan Tourism Agency (Ministry of Land Infrastructure and Tourism, MLIT). Ota-san discussed the potential for promoting onsen spas as part of health tourism, and how they can play a part in relieving the burden of travelers currently put on the “Golden Route” cities of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto which currently receive the majority of inbound visitors by drawing more visitors out into the rural areas where most onsen resorts can be found. After Ota-san’s talk we heard from Mai Yamamoto, Director of the Office of Hot Spring Conservation and Utilization in the Nature Conservation Bureau at the Ministry of the Environment. She discussed the physical properties, history, and health benefits of onsen and why they should be promoted as a valuable resource.
These talks were followed by a panel discussion with Ota-san, Yamamoto-san, and Tomoaki Okada, President of the NPO Nippon Spa Association, Michihiko Nakamura, Director of the All Japan Ryokan Hotel Association, and the Coordinator Atsushi Ebuchi, Chief Editor of the monthly magazine Diet & Beauty. Several interesting points were discussed during the panel discussion, one of the key ones being the goals the government has set for inbound tourism for the year 2020 and beyond, and how to achieve those goals. These goals were recently upgraded to:
- 40 million foreign visitors a year by 2020
- ¥8 trillion in annual spending by foreign visitors by 2020 (¥200,000 average spend per visitor)
- 24 million repeat foreign visitors a year by 2020
- 60 million foreign visitors a year by 2030
- ¥15 trillion in annual spending by foreign visitors by 2030 (¥250,000 average spend per visitor)
The panel discussed how it will be possible to achieve the goal of ¥250,000 average spend per visitor. Ota-san answered that by focusing on markets such as North American visitors, who tend to stay longer and engage in more experiences during their stay, rather than the current focus on short-term group travel shopping trips it will be possible to achieve this goal as North American visitors already spend an average of about ¥200,000.
After the panel discussion Ota-san and I sat down to talk one-on-one, and I pointed out that the most recent statistics from the Japan Tourism Agency show that British visitors are already spending an average of ¥250,000 per visit, while Italians are very close at ¥230,000, therefore not only North American but also European visitors should be a target market. We discussed the need to focus on these high-quality markets, with visitors who engage in deep, interactive experiences which are most likely to create repeat visitors, over the current focus on quantity of visitors alone. I argued that the target of 40 million visitors by 2020 is not nearly as important as the financial target of ¥8 trillion, but even more important than that is the number of repeat visitors, as repeat visitors are the best measure of the health of a destination. The 5 stages of travel, from Dreaming, Planning, Booking, Experiencing and Sharing are complete when a visitor comes back and the cycle is started over again. Although Japan is currently experiencing a boom in tourism (the reason why the inbound tourism goals were increased), this boom is in fact on shaky ground because it has been driven by the “bakugai” or explosive shopping sprees of Chinese visitors who bought luxury products in Japan and then resold them at home. This is not sustainable. Already these numbers are dropping as more goods become available through Chinese e-commerce retailers and Chinese travelers are staying home to order online instead.
Essentially we discussed the need to focus on quality over quantity. A quality visitor is one who has a deep, interactive experience with the destination, and who brings value not only to their own travel but to the destination and stakeholders as well. These days the number one thing visitors are looking for is a unique, rewarding experience. The days of simple sightseeing and shopping tourism are over, today’s travelers want to interact with the locals and come away with lasting memories, not material souvenirs. In order to reach its targets, Japan needs to focus on these types of travelers. Onsen experiences show a lot of promise and can certainly be developed more, as part of the very large potential market for health tourism.