With Japan’s tourism industry bouncing back from the challenges posed by the pandemic, the country has become an alluring destination for travelers worldwide and particularly in the GCC region. The Japan National Tourism Office (JNTO) has been working to promote its diverse experiences to entice travelers to return to the country again.
In a recent interview, Daisuke Kobayashi, Executive Director of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) Dubai Office spoke about raising awareness about the vast variety of tourism offerings across Japan and how the Middle East region is playing a crucial role in driving inbound tourism.
Tell us about your participation at ATM 2023.
We had a strong presence at ATM 2023 with 9 co-exhibitors, mainly tour operators this year. With the recent relaxation of visa application procedures for short-term stay for the residents of UAE and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the introduction of the visa waiver program for Qatari nationals by the passport pre-registration, the resumption of more direct flights from the Middle East to Japan, and the COVID19 related border controls were completely lifted as of April 29, we expect to see a strong influx of visitors from the region and have been working to improve the tourism infrastructure in Japan.
I am very pleased that the Arabian Travel Market 2023 (ATM) concluded with such increased interests in Japan among the travel trade professionals in the Middle East. More agents visited our stand during the four-day event than what we initially expected, and the level of engagement at the meetings was soaring.
The eminent difference in this year’s ATM was the large number of specific inquiries by the agents about hotels and touristic attractions for their customers who are planning to visit Japan. In our past participations at the ATM, there were more general inquiries; for example, if there are any places to visit other than Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, or what we can do in Japan in general.
For us, the objectives of the business meetings at ATM have evolved from general inquiries to more specific consultation, and I felt strongly that Japan is beginning to be considered as a good candidate for leisure travel destination.
How has tourism into Japan fared in the post-pandemic era?
In March 2020, Japan had enforced strict travel curbs on visitors entering the country because of the pandemic. This had a massive impact on tourism arrivals, of course. Needless to say we have recovered since then and the number of global foreign visitors for business and leisure stood at 1.82 million in March 2023, a strong improvement, but still 34 per cent down from 2019, before the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic too, Japan had seen a significant growth in tourism from the GCC countries. This was mostly due to the region’s strong accessibility to Japan with several direct flights and visa exemptions being introduced between Japan and GCC countries.
Since Covid, the Middle East region has once again proven to be one of the fastest recovering markets for inbound tourism. Today, Emirates operates 21 daily flights to Tokyo and Osaka; Qatar Airways is resuming its Tokyo-Haneda daily flights and Etihad will begin operations to Osaka in October and so we expect the trend to continue.
Our strategy going forward will focus on promoting various experiences based on cultures, food and nature of various regions within Japan, to promote sustainable tourism including the adventure tourism. We will also continue to promote the upcoming Osaka/Kansai EXPO 2025.
Europe, North America, Australia and the Middle East markets have always been key source markets for Japan in terms of achieving tourism spend. Except Europe, the other three markets have shown full or more recovery from the 2019 figures.
What are your main areas of focus, in terms of cities/experiences in Japan for the region?
Japan has four different seasons, and each season offers different attractions in terms of nature, activities and cuisine. While first time visitors choose to visit cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, we also recommended discovering other regions that can easily be explored through one or two nights stay from Tokyo or Osaka. We want to raise more awareness of our natural beauty apart from the cherry blossoms, and promote outdoor experiences in summer, autumn foliage and winter sports in Japan.
Personally, I recommend spending the summer holidays in the northern island of Hokkaido. The temperature is much lower than that of Tokyo or Osaka. They are also home to many national parks such as Shikotsu-Toya, Abashiri wetland or Shiretoko, to name a few.
The greatest feature of Japan is the diversity that allows you to enjoy the natural scenery of each season and unique experiences throughout the year.
This year, we have also partnered with Wego, a leading online travel marketplace in the region to develop a campaign that will highlight the different aspects of Japan and showcase the best winter experiences.
In winter, visitors can experience skiing on the powder snow – which is said to be one of the best in the world, and enjoy hot pot dishes made with seasonal ingredients such as crabs and oysters. There are many ways to enjoy the winter season in Japan, and travelers will be able to discover its endless charm. Japan is also home to some of the best ski resorts in the world such as Niseko, Hakuba, and Nozawa Onsen as well as offer some of the world’s most spectacular snow festivals including the Sapporo Snow Festival, the Akita Kandatsu Kogen Snow Festival, and the Yokote Kamakura Festival.
Another attraction that we are extremely proud of is our food. There is an increasing level of interest in Japanese cuisine among people in the Middle East today and we understand that food is a very important drive factor to attract tourists.
The city of Osaka is also known as the ‘Kitchen of Japan’, boasts a world-class culinary scene, with Michelin-starred restaurants and eclectic eateries offering delicacies such as takoyaki (octopus balls), okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) and sushi, for food-lovers from the Middle East and from across the world.
In everything we offer, we are sure visitors will enjoy exploring our heritage, prisiting nature while sampling our renowned hospitality.