BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO, Japan — The largest exhibition venue in Japan is gearing up for what has traditionally been the biggest and most comprehensive travel expo in Asia, although it may take some time for the annual Tourism Expo Japan to build itself back to the scale and success it enjoyed in the years immediately before the global health pandemic.
Undeterred, representatives of the Marianas Islands tourism industries are headed for the Tokyo Big Sight convention center for the four-day expo, which opens on Sept. 22, determined to reach out to existing partners and develop new contacts in the sector.
Organized by the three largest domestic organizations — the Japan Travel and Tourism Association, the Japan Association of Travel Agents and the Japan National Tourism Organization — the 2018 expo attracted well over 207,000 visitors and the 2019 version saw more than 151,000 visitors, despite being moved to a smaller venue in Osaka as Tokyo prepared to host the Olympic Games that summer.
The 2022 event is back at Tokyo Big Sight, which has more than 2.49 million square feet of event space spread across exhibition halls, conference rooms in the dedicated 58-meter-tall Conference Tower, a ballroom and outdoor exhibition spaces.
This year’s theme is “Hello new journey.”
To date, 400 companies or travel organizations have registered to exhibit, and the entire sector will be hoping the pent-up demand among frustrated travelers so many companies are reporting will drive up the number of visitors this year.
Priscilla M. Iakopo, managing director of the Marianas Visitors Authority, said MVA’s return to the expo for the first time since 2019 will be a spectacular affair involving traditional dancers and cultural demonstrations, including banana-leaf painting. The final number of how many will be travelling to Japan has yet to be determined, but the agency will be well-represented, she said, and extremely busy during its stay.
“Our aim this year is to work hard to build awareness of the return of direct flights between Japan and the CNMI with United Airlines and to promote our recently launched ‘Marianacation’ program,” she said. “We are going to be doing a lot of promotion work and explaining the incentives that are available, such as the free PCR tests that we are providing.”
That offer remains, despite the Japanese government announcing it is dropping the requirement that anyone seeking to enter Japan show proof of a negative PCR test within 72 hours of departure. The government will also raise the maximum number of daily arrivals from 20,000 to 50,000.
The decision to relax some of the most stringent entry rules worldwide is partly designed to encourage more visitors and boost both national and regional economies, but is also due to other countries phasing out PCR testing capabilities as they transition to a “living with coronavirus” post-pandemic situation.
It has been difficult and expensive for people to travel to Japan, including nationals returning from a holiday overseas. Travel associations and Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, have for at least six months been calling for regulations to be eased, pointing out that prolonging the regulations would hurt the economy and nation’s reputation as an open and welcoming destination.
Iakopo welcomed the Japanese government’s decision, but emphasized that the offer of free PCR tests remains “because we still want our visitors to feel safe.”
Other offers from MVA designed to appeal to Japanese travelers are free golf, scuba diving and sky diving opportunities, she told the Journal.
The expo will be a chance to demonstrate just how committed MVA is to the Japanese market, which has proved to be a strong and important partner for many years, she said.
In addition to business-to-business discussions, the MVA contingent will hold talks with officials of United Airlines, which launched a direct flight from Tokyo to Saipan on Sept. 1, with Gov. Ralph DLG. Torres scheduled to take part in the ceremony for the inaugural flight.
MVA officials will also explore the possibility of increased flights on the route and will reach out to other airlines, including low-cost carriers, to investigate the introduction of flights.
The Guam Visitors Bureau also has high hopes for what will be the most significant travel expo in Japan for at least three years, said Nadine Leon Guerrero, director of GBV global marketing.
“At its peak, Guam welcomed over 1 million Japanese visitors to the island annually,” she said. “Fast forward to today — the Japan market has had a slow crawl to recover from the impact of COVID-19.
“The Guam Visitors Bureau has been working diligently to encourage travel to the island and maintain some presence as Japan slowly eases back with its travel restrictions,” she said. “Through GVB’s ‘GoGo! Guam’ campaign, Guam has worked with groups of social media influencers and the Japanese travel trade to encourage and support demand from the Japan market.”
The agency recently hosted its first trade familiarization tour from Japan since 2019, bringing in about 50 travel agents, media, and other travel trade partners to support the GVB’s market recovery efforts and to experience the best of Guam’s current product offerings.
GVB has also been working with the Department of Public Health and local partners to extend its free coronavirus testing program for travelers.
“In the short term, we are excited by the recent news that Japan will no longer require negative COVID-19 tests for incoming vaccinated passengers,” Leon Guerrero said. “We hope Japan will continue to ease back its travel restrictions as that will encourage more travel not only to Guam but to Japan as well.
“Guam has been doing good with keeping its COVID-19 numbers down, so we feel both Guam and Japan are ready for changes in relaxed travel restrictions,” she said. “GVB hopes the country lifts its visa requirements so it will be easier to conduct business travel.”
In the longer term, she added, Guam is looking forward “to a full recovery of the Japan market and more affordable flights between Guam and Japan.
“With our histories and cultures intertwined, it is with great hope and effort we work toward the full realization of a thriving and healthy relationship with the Japanese people for many more decades to come.”
GVB solidified funding for its delegation to the expo in mid-August and reached out to members to participate on Aug. 25, on a first come, first served basis. GVB had not shared details of any plans outside of the expo as the Journal went to press.
Monte D.M. Mesa will be among the Guam delegation in Tokyo again this year. The general manager of Guam Premium Outlets and Tumon Sands Plaza malls has been a fixture at the event between 2000 and 2019.
“The Tokyo Expo has always been important to connect with the new leaders of the Japanese tour agents, travel media networks and airline companies to support overseas travel to Guam,” he said. “In addition, it has been needed to promote Guam to Japanese overseas travelers who have not yet had the opportunity to visit Guam.”
But this year is arguably more important than ever before, he said.
“We need to have the Japanese market put Guam to the front of their minds for short, overseas trips after the lock-down of the last 28 months,” he said.
The message to the Japanese travel industry will be, “Come with your family and safely experience the nice blue skies, the clean air, swimming in the tropical aqua-blue waters and the white sand beaches of Guam,” Mesa said.
And he is hopeful that the worst of the crisis is now behind the travel industry.
“I am more optimistic than others that our Japanese travelers will return to Guam sooner than later, with some projecting full recovery by 2024,” he said. “And I hope that the removal of more Japanese travel restrictions will assist in opening up overseas travel for the Japanese market to Guam and the Marianas.” mbj