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Editorial: Cultivating 'Japan fans' key to attracting repeat foreign visitors

In just 10 months, the number of foreign visitors to Japan has already smashed through the 20 million mark for the year, surpassing the previous annual record of about 19.74 million arrivals set in 2015.

The first time foreign visitors topped 10 million was in 2013. At the time, the government set a target of "20 million people by 2020," but visitor numbers expanded far faster than expected. Now the government is shooting for 40 million in 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

The wave of people coming to see Japan is a welcome development on many fronts, especially as our country's population ages and begins to decline, particularly in the countryside. There are, of course, direct and obvious economic benefits from so many visitors shopping, eating and filling Japan's hotel rooms. However, the tourism boom has also made companies and regional communities more outward-looking in their thinking, and that's deeply significant.

However, while 20 million visitors is nothing to sneeze at, it doesn't come anywhere close to the world champion of foreign tourism, France, which attracted more than 80 million visitors in 2014. And France isn't the only country beating Japan by a wide margin. To put it another way, Japan has a lot of tourism growth potential.

What's important is to avoid viewing visitors to our shores as mere consumers.

The government has declared it wants to see foreign visitors drop 8 trillion yen in Japan in 2020. There's nothing wrong with setting a numerical target in and of itself, but focusing solely on visitor spending could lead to a nasty trip-up.

This is, simply put, because conditions can change. A rising yen may make Japan a less attractive destination, while economic events abroad could also bring down visitor numbers. And those considering visiting Japan to shop for Japanese products may think twice if they find they can buy the same stuff online.

If a small town in regional Japan brought in a big-box retail outlet to attract foreign shoppers, it may see a short-term rise in visitors from abroad. However, most of the benefits might end up in the pockets of the retailer and the companies supplying it ... and not the host community.

The conclusion that sparkly tourist-oriented facilities are needed to bring in visitors is wrong. There are attractions and ways to welcome foreign tourists that are close to hand and just waiting to be uncovered. Take farm stays, for example. Visitors don't just stay the night and chow down on fresh produce; they help harvest it as well. Then there are tours of recycling centers that get visitors to think about how to tackle environmental issues. These sorts of "hands-on" experiences are likely to have a good chance of attracting more people back to Japan for repeat visits.

Also, while earthquakes are a major risk in Japan, disaster prevention can also become a resource for attracting visitors. For example, the Tokyo Fire Department has facilities called Life Safety Learning centers where visitors can feel what it's like to be in an earthquake, among other hands-on activities. These centers have never been marketed outside Japan, and yet they are seeing more foreign visitors.

If Japan spends all its time chasing visitor numbers and tourist spending figures, it will eventually hit a wall. It should instead introduce people to the many faces of Japan, give them the chance to actually do things with Japanese people, and generally provide a diverse and substantive experience, looking to cultivate long-term "Japan fans."

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