The perception of Japan as an insular nation no longer holds true, as the country opens up to tourism in recent years. Furthermore, the immense influence of Japanese pop culture is turning out to its best ambassador in promoting the country in the European markets.
Japan is becoming “more accessible” for UK travellers, a trend fanned by Japanese pop culture figures such as Yayoi Kusama, whose recent exhibition was sold out in London, and Netflix sensation and tidying expert Marie Kondo, observed Natasha Rewrie, business development manager EU at Buffalo Tours.
The growing influence and consumption of Japanese pop culture is likely fuelling awareness and sparking travel interest to the Land of the Rising Sun, Rewrie suggested.
Japan tourism has also benefited from the greater media attention on the country as it gears up for major sporting events like Rugby World Cup 2019, said Johann Chabert, country manager, Buffalo Tours Japan.
“Japan is overall a growth market because the country is opening up, and we’re seeing around 10-15 per cent growth from the Western markets to Japan,” he said.
It’s a similar story for Terrie Lloyd, CEO of JapanTravel.com who said his business was up millions of dollars over the last year, driven solely by German tourists’ fast-growing demand for Japan.
He commented: “Japan is gaining popularity overall, and next year is the Olympics (which has spurred interest). Europe’s usually the last place to hear about Asia, and up until very recently everyone here wanted to go to Thailand. But recently, Japanese food and culture are starting to get really well known. In the last two years, Japan suddenly took off.”
Among the European markets, Geraint Holt, managing director of Japan specialist DMC, The J Team, first saw strongest underlying interest in Japan from France, then Germany, Spain and Italy.
The emergence of demand from Holland and Belgium operators has been the most notable change for the DMC in the past six months. “Japan is now a destination they are offering, which we didn’t see previously,” he added.
For Western European travellers, Japan’s biggest advantages as a destination is how unfamiliar and mystifying it is. Added Holt: “Travellers arrive with little preconceived ideas and low expectations. But then end up having a great time, and want to tell everyone else about it.”
This is a marked departure from in the past, when the destination welcomed mainly travellers with special interests.
“That was the case when Japan was still below 20 million (arrivals). The majority of visitors arriving had a prior interest, and were channelling that into a holiday. Now, Japan is coming to the top of the list of avid travellers who have been to many countries, he observed.
While the country is clearly becoming a “more mainstream” destination, Chabert contends Japan is not yet fully ready for Western tourists as English is rarely spoken beyond the key cities of Tokyo and Kyoto. – additional reporting by Yixin Ng