The global tourism industry has been stuck in an abyss for more than a year and a half because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Japan is sticking to its goal of attracting an annual 60 million inbound travelers by 2030, an executive of the Japan National Tourism Organization has said.
Attracting inbound tourists has been a key pillar of the government’s attempts to boost the economy, and the number of foreign visitors was on a steady rise — until the coronavirus outbreak.
With strict travel restrictions in place, foreign visitors to Japan plummeted 87.1% to 4.12 million last year — far below its initial target of 40 million. International tourists around the world declined 73% worldwide in 2020, making it the weakest year on record, according to the U.N. World Tourism Organization.
At present, there is no telling when inbound tourism will resume in Japan. But since major international tourism-related bodies, including the World Tourism Organization and the International Air Transport Association, have forecast that foreign travel demand will likely return to the pre-pandemic level in 2024, Japan is also drafting plans along similar lines.
“We are setting (2024) as one target and will proceed” to draft scenarios for recovery, said Kyoji Kuramochi, executive vice president of JNTO, an external body of the Japan Tourism Agency in charge of promoting inbound travel, during an interview Friday.
“We are not changing the 2030 goal and are trying to figure out how we will be able to achieve it.”
For Japan’s tourism industry, last year was supposed to be a milestone, with an influx of foreign visitors for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Yet the quadrennial event was postponed by a year and held mostly without spectators due to the health crisis.
While it was unfortunate that the country was unable to welcome overseas visitors, the games still helped showcase Japan as a tourism destination, Kuramochi said.
“It was a really good opportunity to draw the attention of those people around the world who are interested in visiting Japan,” he said.
JNTO, for instance, teamed up with Ashton Eaton, an American two-time Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, for a tourism video commercial that aired on NBC and major broadcasters in other countries.
The tourism agency has also introduced how Japan has become more barrier free, with more tourism spots and activities now able to be enjoyed by people with disabilities, such as paragliding at Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture for those who use wheelchairs.
Many in the tourism industry did not expect that the pandemic would persist for this long, Kuramochi said.
“They say that the delta variant has especially made the situation tougher. But the number of infections have sharply dropped (over the past month), so we have been hearing some positive voices in the past couple of weeks.”
But even if Japan lifts travel restrictions, tourists will still have to be cautious about infection risks, as the pandemic won’t be completely over.
In that sense, Japan’s high levels of cleanliness and hygiene will be a selling point to attract international travelers, said Kuramochi, adding that JNTO has created pictograms of COVID-19 countermeasures with foreign languages for tourism-related businesses.
Asked about post-pandemic travel trends, Kuramochi said the basic goals of traveling, such as taking in beautiful scenery and eating good food, won’t change.
But so-called adventure tourism is expected to be popular, since more people will be craving physical activities after having been stuck at home for so long, he said.
Another trend will likely be sustainable tourism, in which tourism businesses engage in practices to preserve their local environment and community.
Based on polls taken in countries such as France and Germany, some would-be travelers are interested in visiting areas that make a commitment to sustainability, Kuramochi said.
“The concept of sustainable tourism is highly valued only in parts of Europe now, but we think it will spread globally. Therefore, we need to make sure to promote such information from Japan,” he said.
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