Last updated: 11:00 PM ET, Wed June 24 2015

JNTO Welcomes a New Director as Japan Tourism Heats Up

Vacation Packages | Cox & Kings | James Ruggia | June 24, 2015

JNTO Welcomes a New Director as Japan Tourism Heats Up

How about a helicopter tour of Mount Fuji? The Mandarin Oriental Tokyo can arrange it (photo courtesy of the JNTO)

Tuesday night was a night of greetings and farewells for the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) in Manhattan as Japan expands and innovates across several tourism fronts.

After four tumultuous years for Japanese inbound tourism, Executive Director Yuki Tanaka is returning to Tokyo as her replacement Ken Iwata takes the reins.

In remarks to an assembly of agents, tour operators, and press, Iwata said he hopes to raise Japan’s brand by differentiating the destination from other Asian nations by using Japan’s distinct culture, history, technology, and experiences. He specifically mentioned special interest tours and how the recent strength of inbound tourism have garnered the JNTO more budget and authority within the Japanese government.

The JNTO’s effectiveness was a bulwark during Japanese tourism’s darkest hour. During her tenure, Tanaka had to manage the March, 2011 tsunami crisis, perhaps the lowest point in the history of Japanese tourism. The JNTO did a masterful job putting out plenty of information that specifically identified the area where it was dangerous to travel, and its distance from the major attractions.

When the bleeding stopped, a powerhouse dollar went from ¥77 to the dollar in the autumn of 2012 to the ¥124 that it is now — a roaring change in purchasing power.

With that came record years in American travel to Japan. In 2014 some 13,413,467 international travelers arrived in Japan for a 29.4 percent growth. That number included 891,668 Americans, for a growth of 11.6 percent. In the first quarter this year, some 4,131,400 internationals arrived, including 216,900 Americans, for a growth of 43.7 percent and 12.6 percent respectively.

The dollar’s strength was just one factor in this success. The surge also came from a better engagement between the JNTO and regional tourist offices, more creative product from hotels and tour operators, an ever-expanding rail network that opened off-path destinations, and finally, a higher profile for special interest aspects of Japanese culture.

Local tourism officials in the Oki Islands, for instance, are lifting its profile with new hiking trails, kayaking services, and bike routes to complement its beaches. Another example of local promotional zeal comes from the traditional farming town of Tokamachi, which hosts a triennial international art event at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field with 130 pieces of contemporary art.

And the trains keep adding new off-path destinations. Earlier this month, an inspection train rode the Hokkaido Shinkansen Line checking for abnormalities as it prepares to offer bullet train service next March on Japan’s northernmost main island. The Hokkaido Shinkansen line will run between Shin-Hakkodate and Sapporo.

The full 125-mile Hokkaido Shinkansen route to Sapporo with stops at Shin-Yakumo, Oshamanbe, Kucchian, and Shin-Otaru is expected to be completed by 2035, offering a journey time of around five hours.

Hotels and tour operators have also stimulated more traffic with creative products. Tokyo's Mandarin Oriental is offering a Helicopter Flycation, which includes a private helicopter tour of Mount Fuji aboard a Eurocopter Hermès Edition. About 60 miles south of Tokyo, the 12,380-foot dormant volcano has come to symbolize Japan. 

The Park Hotel Tokyo’s Artist in Hotel campaign assigns local contemporary artists to a guest room at a time. The hotel hopes to install art works in all rooms on their 31st floor by 2016, and set up art concierge desk and exclusive art lounge for more art experiences for both hotel guests and visitors.

The 10-day/nine-night Path of Enlightenment tour is among Cox & Kings’ 50 new journeys over seven continents for the 2015-2016 season. The tour explores the influence of Zen Buddhism on Japanese culture with guests visiting Tokyo’s shrines and temples, as well as the hot springs of Yudanaka, where tourists will soak alongside the Japanese snow monkeys of Jigokudani.

In Kyoto, they will participate in a traditional tea ceremony with a tea master, and learn the basics of Zen meditation before spending time at the Buddhist lodge on Mount Koya.

Destination Asia offers a food tour of Tokyo led by a local guide who takes participants into areas where home-cooked dishes are served in retro-style cafes and washed down with cold beer. Districts such as Yurakucho and Tsukishima are explored as are local izakaya pubs. They also offer a geisha dining experience in Kanazawa, a town in Japan where the traditional “old town” has survived untouched, allowing visitors a glimpse into the heart of the country’s heritage.

Photo of modern Japanese fashion courtesy of the JNTO

A younger generation of American travelers has made modern Japanese cultural sources such as Anime and Manga important attractions. These travelers are more willing to immerse themselves in rich modern Japanese culture as well as traditional historic Japan. Those travelers should respond well to Henn-na Hotel, opening mid-July in Nagasaki. The accommodation will have several robot staff members, including the check-in clerk at the front desk. They are designed with very human elements such as facial expressions and joint movements.

Clearly Best Western International sees an even bigger future for Japanese tourism as we head toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The chain now has a portfolio of 14 hotels in 11 key cities across Japan, and just opened the 199-room Best Western Rembrandt Hotel Kagoshima Resort in April. “With plans to attract 20 million international visitors by 2020, Japan is a country on the rise,” said Olivier Berrivin, Best Western International’s managing director of international operations — Asia. 

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