Japan’s newly formed Tourism Agency, whose formation was announced Oct. 1, will have a lot of work to do. Even with the variety of appealing and fascinating sites nationwide, establishing a tourist infrastructure is no easy task. Most other countries in Asia have long since built a network for tourism, while Japan seems to have just gotten started.
According to the World Tourism Organization, Japan barely ranks on the tourism scale, with a comparatively low 7 million visitors in 2006. That’s nearly half of Thailand’s and Hong Kong’s total and even further behind China’s pre-Olympic 33 million annual visitors. It will take a long time before Japan approaches France’s highest ranking for visitors — 80 million — and the United States’ largest take in tourist revenue — $85 billion.
To get there, Japan will need to focus on language, with more tourist guides, multilingual menus, English-speaking front desk staff, discount plans and user-friendly Web sites. It was only during the 2002 World Cup that even big cities like Tokyo started to put up signs in English, Chinese and Korean in train stations and at popular areas. The huge number of historical monuments, museums and sites of special interest throughout Japan will need a more complete multilingual upgrade.
Japan must also consider how to present itself. In a recent poll, foreign visitors cited shopping as the main reason to visit Japan, but surely the country does not want to become just another Hong Kong. Shopping tours will not benefit needy rural communities and outlying areas. With over a dozen World Heritage sites and countless historical and cultural treasures, the Tourism Agency needs to ensure a balanced, broader view of Japan.
The Japanese will have to learn to accommodate themselves to the growing influx of different kinds of people. More meaningful exchanges are needed than just cash and credit card numbers. We hope that since Japan is fourth in total outbound tourists, most people will get a sense of accommodation. Tourism is a powerful force that has irrevocably changed many countries. Whatever steps are taken for tourists, they should bring not only economic benefits but also intercultural understanding.