BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO, Japan — The Tourism Expo Japan 2022 may have been more sparsely attended than in years gone by, but there was a genuine sense of optimism across the industry that life is finally being breathed back into the sector – that feeling was dramatically enhanced by the announcement that Japan will abolish on Oct. 11 the cap on daily arrivals from overseas and do away with the requirement that tourists obtain a visa in advance.
Speaking at a press conference in New York on Sept. 22, coinciding with the opening day of an expo that before the coronavirus pandemic was the largest travel show in Asia, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan was bringing its border control measures into line with the rest of the Group of Seven nations.
The travel sector and Japanese industry in general have been calling for the restrictions to be lifted — particularly the present cap of 50,000 arrivals per day — on the grounds that they have been causing serious damage to both the nation’s economy and its reputation as an open and welcoming country. That pressure has finally resulted in the announcement by Kishida, who was in New York to attend the UN General Assembly.
“It is very, very good news,” said Nadine Leon Guerrero, director of global marketing for the Guam Visitors Bureau.
“We saw an immediate impact on inbound arrivals when South Korea ended its restrictions a few months ago and I am confident that we will see the same reaction from Japan when the rules here change,” she told the Journal.
There was little disguising the much-reduced footfall at the Sept. 22-25 show, however, an indication of how much needs to be done to get the entire industry operating once more at full throttle.
The expo was last held in Tokyo in 2018, when more than 200,000 people attended. The event was moved to Osaka the following year as the venue, Tokyo Big Sight, was being transformed into the media center for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. A sharply curtailed one-day event took place in Okinawa in 2020 as the impact of the pandemic really began to bite. With the postponed Olympics held in Tokyo last summer, the decision was made to skip the expo for a year.
“I’ve been to more than 10 of these expos in Japan and yes, this one seems much smaller than in the years immediately before the pandemic,” Leon Guerrero said. “But it is still important that we are here because a key part of what we are doing is rebuilding the connections that we had before.
“And we are talking to a lot of media and Japanese travel agents and I would say that while the quantity of our meetings is lower, the quality is significantly better,” she said. Underlining the renewed interest in Guam as a travel destination, another Japanese television crew is scheduled to film a travel show in Guam in October. “We are emphasizing the cleanliness of business across Guam, we are telling people about all the effort that is being put into our safety protocols and all the new things to see and do in Guam,” Leon Guerrero said.
The outlook, however, is difficult to predict, she said. While 2019 was Guam’s best year ever in terms of arrivals, with 1.6 million touching down, and the initial months of 2020 showing an improvement of as much as 8% on even that figure, tourist numbers had collapsed by the middle of the year.
The hope now, Leon Guerero said, is that the gradual increase in tourist arrivals can be sustained over the coming months and could return to the peak 2019 figure in 2024.
One of the new attractions in Guam is the renovated and rebranded Crowne Plaza Resort Guam, which will enjoy its grand opening in November, said Keiko Deliguin, sales manager for the Japan market.
“We have carried out a massive renovation, inside and out, and the property looks completely different now,” she said. “We are already seeing a lot of interest from Japan and we anticipate that as much as 40% of our guests will be from Japan.
“These travelers select us because we are a brand-new hotel and they expect a very high standard of hospitality and service, which we will provide,” she added.
Nevertheless, Deliguin anticipates that the rest of 2022 will be “difficult” for the Japan market, due to the delayed reopening of its borders and low load factors on flights, although there is a possibility that numbers could pick up at the end of the year or over New Year as restrictions have now been eased. And there is optimism, she added, that the recovery will really begin to show next summer.
Ricky Woodall, general manager of Skydive Guam, agreed that this year’s show was quieter than in the past, although he was “looking forward” to the two days over the weekend when the event was open to the general public.
“Japan is very important to us, it makes up 80% of our business,” he said. “And while we have made it through the last few years, it is great news that Japan is reopening and we can now be a lot more optimistic about the future.”
There was also qualified optimism on the nearby Marianas Visitors Authority booth.
“There are lots of very big players all around us here so we are having to work doubly hard to make sure that we are being heard,” said Ivan Quichocho, vice president at Tan Holidings and an MVA board director.
The pace of bookings to Saipan remains slow, despite the recent resumption of flights from Tokyo with United Airlines, although that is primarily due to the weakness of the yen against the dollar, he said. “The travel trade people that I have been speaking to say that they have people who want to come and the beauty of the situation at the moment is that we only have to find 460 people to fill the flight each week, so that is a target that we should be able to meet in a nation of more than 100 million people,” he said.
“We have to find the right formula and show the value of coming to the Marianas and once we have conquered those growing pains, I have every confidence that the numbers will come back,” Quichocho said. “We want the next generation of travelers to come and visit, to fall in love with us and then become loyal repeaters,” he said. “There are already many connections between us and Japan and we just need to rekindle them.”
Palau was eager to make a splash at this year’s expo as well, with Tsuyoshi Shibamura, the representative of the Palau Visitors Authority in Japan, saying he intends to play up the uniqueness of the nation to a travel-hungry public here.
“Travel agents in Japan are looking for something different after coronavirus, something special,” he said. “Japanese people want to have more space around them now, and many don’t want to go back to the beach resorts they used to go to because they are too crowded.
“They are also interested in eco-tourism and links to SDGs [sustainable development goals],” he said. “And that search for something unique means they are looking for a high-quality experience, originality and they are happy to pay more for that.”
Japan Airlines used to operate direct charter flights to Palau and Shibamura is optimistic that with evidence of pent-up demand, Japan’s national carrier will once more resume direct flights next year. mbj