Cost, Language Barrier Still Keeping Tourists Away
Cost, Language Barrier Still Keeping Tourists Away
Independent tourists pride themselves on being able to plot out and partake in adventures of their own design -- rising to challenges known and unknown.
For the foreign traveler, one would think Japan would be just the ticket, what with its abundant natural beauty, on and off the beaten paths, and historical legacies and cutting-edge trends.
But for many foreign travelers, Japan is a hard sell, burdened by an image of being costly, confusing and on certain levels cool to outsiders, and a place where cash is king but not easy to come by.
The country is trying nonetheless to get more foreign tourists to come, and working on its image and other factors that have kept their numbers relatively low.
Determined to make Japan a major tourism destination, the government has begun efforts to make the country more convenient for foreign visitors, in terms of costs, the language barrier and the transportation system, which some regard as complex even though it has a reputation of being one of the world's most efficient.
The moves are part of a government drive to double the number of foreign visitors to 10 million by 2010 under the Visit Japan Campaign launched last April.
For the current fiscal year, 3.4 billion yen has been allocated to promote Japan as a tourist destination.
While visible advances are now being made, however, tourism industry officials say Japan has yet to clear the biggest hurdles, a key one of which is the country's high prices, especially for accommodations.
"We need to provide infrastructure to make it easier for independent foreign travelers to get around," said Satoru Kanazawa, director general of the transport ministry's tourism department.
One example of improvements already in place is the debut of a station code system this month for the Tokyo subway network. The subway system has been notorious for being a complex network with few non-Japanese signs.
"That helped a lot. We knew exactly where we were," said Rebecca Flannery, a tourist in Tokyo from the U.S.
Her husband, Peter Reis, who has been to Tokyo several times, agreed, saying the trouble of matching unfamiliar station names and the route map has been resolved.
Every Tokyo subway station now has both a numeric and alphabetical designation, showing its route to make it easier to get around.
An English-language subway route map is also available at stations. On the back, there are instructions on how to use the subway system in English, Korean, Chinese and Japanese.
A government-run multilingual Web site on selected reasonable accommodations for foreigners opened earlier this month, and an improved Japan rail pass for foreign visitors, offering a greater discount, is also under consideration. Japan Rail passes at present offer unlimited travel during their duration, but not all private lines are covered.
Another hurdle Japan has to surmount is its dearth of convenient venues for foreign visitors to acquire yen, whether by converting other currencies, traveler's checks or drawing cash off foreign credit card accounts -- the latter two being highly common practices overseas, where people generally refrain from carrying around large sums of cash.
"Relying on cash is always a problem in Japan. Credit cards are gradually becoming more common, but still, it is an issue. On top of this, it is hard to find a place where an overseas-issued (credit) card can be used to acquire cash," said a respondent to a survey jointly conducted by The Japan Times and Kanto District Transport Bureau of the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry between February and March.
Many foreign travelers are confronted with this problem because there are few places to exchange foreign currency, while banks, just like in most countries, are closed on weekday evenings and weekends.
Though automated teller machines should play a key role, most ATMs in Japan do not accept foreign-issued cards unless they are international ATMs or ATMs run by Citibank and Japan Post.
This is due to the difference in magnetic strips between foreign-issued cards and those issued in Japan.
"We often receive complaints from our foreign card holders about not being able to use their cards at ATMs here," said Daniel Lintz, director of corporate communications of Visa International Asia Pacific Ltd.
The government made the ATM system at post offices across the nation compatible with foreign credit cards in 2000 to prepare for the Okinawa Group of Eight Summit held the same year, but few foreign tourists are aware of this, Lintz added.
As of the end of March 2002, there were some 21,600 ATMs at post offices nationwide.
Despite mounting pressure from the government and abroad calling for making Japan's system more compatible to cards issued overseas, bank officials say this is no easy task.
"Changing our system not only affects our ATMs but also ATMs of other banks and those at convenience stores across the nation, because all the (domestic) cards are made compatible with one another to fulfill customer needs," said a bank official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"It will definitely require huge costs to change the whole system, and commissions from overseas-issued cardholders would not be able to cover such costs."
Then there's the lodging factor. The country offers a unique cultural experience, and many foreign visitors may want to savor this. And indeed many scenic spots, especially remote ones, have only a homegrown ambience, but they aren't available to everyone.
Isao Sawa, owner of the inn Sawanoya Ryokan in Tokyo's Taito Ward, feels there are not enough reasonably priced lodgings for foreign travelers, or inns willing to take them in.
"If Japan wants to boost the number of foreign tourists, we need more reasonable Japanese-style inns that can accommodate them," Sawa said.
The greater the number of foreign visitors, the more diversified their tastes and demands will be, so there should be a variety of lodging options available, he said, and "ryokan" and other Japanese-style inns must be more accommodating as well.
Sawa's inn, which has 12 rooms, has lodged more than 110,000 foreign tourists from 80 countries in the past 23 years.
But if the government is to achieve its goal, other inns as well must be willing to take in foreign guests, he said.
Many, however, are reluctant to do so because of the language barrier and since they feel they lack the experience, the transport ministry's Kanazawa said, adding that they are also not prepared for guests who stay for a long period.
Typical ryokan are usually only for one-night or weekend stays. Room charges are relatively high, and include breakfast and dinner, which vary little from day to day due to the short-term nature of the typical Japanese guest. Since staying at a ryokan for a Japanese is akin to a weekend indulgence, they stay on average of 1.6 days at lodgings per domestic trip, according to fiscal 2004 figures from The Japan Association of Travel Agents.
They also spend an average of 12,347 yen per night, according to fiscal 2002 figures from Japan Tourism Marketing Co.
Foreigners visiting Japan, on the other hand, aren't coming on a weekend trip and usually tend to stay longer than one night at the same place. According to fiscal 1999 statistics by Japan National Tourist Organization, foreign tourists spent an average of about 6,800 yen per night for lodging in Japan. No breakdown on the type of lodging was provided, but many foreigners opt to stay in "minshuku," which are less upscale than ryokan and, for them, up to now limited in number.
Kanazawa said ryokan are too expensive for foreign guests who want to stay longer at one place.
Since foreign visitors are still the minority, ryokan are not willing to operate in a more flexible manner to meet this demand, he added.
"This is a chicken-and-egg situation. It is easy to blame reluctant inns, but if there is not much demand, ryokan will not see the point in changing their ways," he said. "So, our idea is to first boost the number of foreign tourists. We believe this will then lead to a gradual change in the Japanese travel industry."