How will Japan rebuild its tourism industry after the blows inflicted on it by the COVID-19 pandemic? Strategies that will lead to stable growth are essential, rather than simple numerical targets such as “quickly reaching 40 million annual inbound visitors.”

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said that his government aims to “revive Japan’s tourism in a sustainable way” and ordered related officials to map out a new basic promotion plan for a tourism-oriented country ahead of Expo 2025 in Osaka. The Kishida Cabinet is set to approve the plan by the end of March 2023.

The relaxation of coronavirus border control has led to a gradual increase in inbound tourists to Japan. What is important now is to sort out the issues that have emerged so far and apply the lessons learned.

First, Japan needs to come up with ways to avoid the concentration of visitors in certain areas. Inbound tourist numbers hovered around 8 million-plus in 2012, growing quickly to 31.88 million in pre-pandemic 2019. While the industry was booming, it created “overtourism” issues negatively affecting the lives of locals.

Authorities need to be careful about risks involved in expanding tourist facilities in anticipation of inbound demand.

The Japanese government has treated tourism as a trump card for regional development, but the coronavirus crisis caused a sharp decline in visitor numbers, and those in the industry across the country are facing serious problems as a result. Japan’s hotel business had employed some 590,000 people pre-pandemic, but as of 2021 that had fallen to 460,000. There was a noticeable turnover of non-regular workers, who make up a little over half of overall lodging industry staffing.

Going forward, Japan needs to find creative solutions to stabilize tourism businesses while alleviating overcrowding and also securing a certain level of demand during off-peak seasons.

In spring 2021, the city of Kyoto compiled a tourism promotion plan which pays considerations to residents’ lives. The municipal government is working on attracting visitors to the suburbs so that they won’t concentrate in popular locations in the city center. The city is also encouraging tourists to diversify their visit times, such as early morning trips to famous shrines and temples.

Japan should also focus on measures to spread the effects of inbound tourism to various regions, including the Tohoku region to the northeast and the Shikoku region to the west, by promoting their attractions globally.

Efforts to diversify domestic tourism, such as “micro tourism” visits to nearby spots are essential. That being said, programs to subsidize travel expenses, like the National Travel Discount program currently in effect, entail huge financial burdens, and there is a limit to how long they can continue.

Clever policies are needed, such as getting the business community to enable workers to take flexible vacation time, to create off-peak and weekday travel demand.

Japan has plenty of rich tourism offerings that attract visitors from around the world. What is required is long-lasting development programs to expand the base of Japan’s tourism industry by taking advantage of these.


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