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Touchdown Japan: Greater effort needed to promote inbound tourism

David Atkinson, left, speaks at a panel discussion in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward in this file photo taken on Aug. 25, 2017. (Mainichi/Naoya Shinoda)

TOKYO -- Inbound tourists will be a key source of income for Japan in the future as the country looks to overcome financial problems associated with its low birthrate and aging population, a British expert claimed at a symposium in the Ginza district here.

David Atkinson was appointed in June 2017 as a special adviser by the Japan National Tourism Organization, which pioneered policies for inbound tourism under the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA). He lectured on "how to increase productivity for the tourism industry" at a symposium on March 8 this year.

Atkinson was born in 1965 and majored in Japanese studies at the University of Oxford. He worked for The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. and is currently the chief executive officer of Konishi Decorative Arts and Crafts Co., a business specializing in repairing Japan's national treasures and important cultural properties. Participants were surprised when such a Japan expert suggested that the country needs "tourism with diversity, emphasizing nature, which will lengthen the stay of wealthy foreigners, instead of just depending on history and culture."

"Inbound foreign tourists will be a strong growth industry for Japan, which faces a low birthrate and aging population. Japan should become a tourism-oriented country," argued Atkinson. In his book titled Shin-Kanko Rikkoku Ron (New Strategies for a Tourism-Oriented Country) published in June 2015, Atkinson claims that "although it is difficult for Japan to accept immigrants, it can become one of the greatest tourism destinations in the world by making foreign visitors, who are temporary migrants, bring in tourist dollars." The book has been well received by those in the tourism industry.

The "Visit Japan Campaign," introduced by the administration of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is said to have triggered the recent boom in inbound foreign visitors. The Tourism Nation Promotion Basic Law was implemented in 2007, and the JTA was established in the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism in 2008 to promote full-scale efforts to attract more visitors to the country.

Promotion campaigns were held overseas and visa requirements for Japan were eased as a result. However, there was little progress in attracting more foreign tourists due the economic downturn following the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers and physiological insecurity caused by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Furthermore, Japan's relationships with China and South Korea -- which top the list for the number of foreign tourists that visit Japan each year -- grew at a sluggish rate in 2012 due to Japan's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture and the then South Korean president's visit to Takeshima Island in Shimane Prefecture, which South Korea claims as its own.

The situation started to improve around the end of 2012 when the number of inbound foreigners sharply rose due to a drop in the yen caused by the monetary relaxation policy advocated by the second administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The number of foreign tourists to Japan increased in 2015 by 47 percent compared to the previous year after Japan-China and Japan-South Korea relations improved. Large shopping sprees by Chinese visitors became a trend, so much so that the term "Bakugai," literally meaning explosive buying, became a buzzword.

"Japan's population will decline by about 32.65 million people over the next 40 years, but the number of elderly people will not decrease, neither will those drawing a pension or health care costs. Inbounds will make up for those expenditures. We need a strategy targeting tourists, especially wealthy ones from Europe, North America and Australia," Atkinson asserted in his speech.

The symposium held at Kanze-Nogakudo, a stage for traditional Japanese drama located in the luxury mall Ginza Six, was crammed with representatives from companies all across Japan. However, many in the audience had confused looks on their faces, indicating that they have yet to grasp why such a strategy is necessary.

(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, Opinion Group)

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