An Introduction of Japanese Tourism Initiatives During the Pandemic
by Mamiko Kim
Have you ever been on a “staycation?” If you have, you join 53% of Americans who say that they’ve holidayed at home.(1) Combining the words “stay” and “vacation,” staycation was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2009 after wide usage following a period of economic downturn.(2) With scrimped funds and rising gas prices, Americans discovered that traveling close by, or even acting as a tourist in their own towns, could provide a much needed respite while still being economically smart. Staycations are again seeing a boom this year in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic, with the Travelocity 2020 Holiday Outlook Survey finding that 2/3 of travelers are planning on vacationing within 250 miles of their homes this holiday season (roughly the distance of Washington, DC to Virginia Beach).(3) Taking into account that 60% of respondents revealed that they will not be visiting family, we can conclude that people are eager to travel for their own sakes, and that there is a market for domestic tourism.
Meanwhile, Japan has ramped up their efforts to entice people to travel domestically. Even before the start of the pandemic, “workations,” an extension of teleworking where employees could travel while making time during the day to complete work tasks, had begun gaining traction. Microsoft Japan and Japan Airlines Co. both started workation programs, and in 2017 Wakayama Prefecture began advertising to their Tokyo neighbors that they were a good spot for such an activity. That same year, the Japanese government instituted “Telework Day” on June 24th in preparation for congestion during the Olympics, and 2018 saw the passing of the Workstyle Reform Act, limiting working hours and encouraging a better work-life balance.(4, 5, 6)
Thus, in light of this background, it comes as no surprise that Japan has advanced arguably one of the world’s strongest responses to the issue of wavering tourism and consumer spending during the global pandemic. Consider below the following examples of Japan’s efforts to court domestic tourists.
2. The Japanese Government “Go to Travel” Campaign (7)
Aligned with global trends, the Japanese tourism industry has suffered under the pandemic, including from the effects of most international travelers being barred from entering the country since March. In an attempt to assist the tourism sector, the Japanese government began advancing their “Go To Travel” Campaign to encourage domestic tourism. The campaign is a stipend based program, with 35% of the total cost of travel and accommodations covered by the program, and 15% of the total cost available in coupons for other expenses at the travel destination, such as restaurant and gift shop purchases. By taking advantage of this program, domestic travelers can save up to 50% of their total trip costs.
There are some stipulations to this program. Firstly, while Japanese and non-Japanese travelers both have access to the program, they must currently reside in Japan. Additionally, daytrips and overnight trips have differing discount limits. (8) For daytrips, per person, travelers may receive up to 7,000 yen (about $70) in discounts, and 3,000 yen ($30) in coupons. For overnight trips, per person per day, travelers may receive up to a 13,000 yen ($130) discount, and 7,000 ($70) yen in coupons. However, discounts and coupons are limited to trips lasting 7 days or less. Furthermore, if booking travel and accommodations separately, only accommodations will receive the discount, so package deals are best to take full advantage of the program. Finally, arrangements must be made through a campaign registered travel agency or directly through an accommodation booking website.(9)
Despite these restrictions, there are many signs that the “Go To Travel” Campaign has reached its aim to entice people to travel. According to the Japan Tourism Agency, between July 22nd (start date) and October 31st, 39.76 million guests/night took advantage of the campaign, using 208.7 billion yen in subsidies. Since Tokyo’s inclusion as a travel destination at the beginning of October to November 9th, 20.1 billion yen in subsidies were used in regional coupons.(10) Furthermore, the Japanese government required participating accommodations and facilities in the Campaign to take measures against the spread of the coronavirus, which may have reassured travelers and regional tourism destinations alike. With the image of safe, cheap, and accessible travel options, Japan’s domestic tourism has seen an uptick.
3. Workation Promotions
The word, “workation,” made headlines in Japan when it was used in a government tourism meeting earlier this year by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary (now Prime Minister) Yoshihide Suga as a way to bolster the tourism sector. Since then, many creative workation promotions have appeared. (11)
Thanks in part to the financial support of the Japanese Environmental Ministry, several national parks have begun offering workation packages.(12) Run by the National Park Resorts of Japan, the manager of Kyukamura hotels, the workation promotions are geared towards day trippers who may wish to take a break from their telework routines at home. Participants can work in the morning and enjoy the afternoon taking advantage of the outdoor activities and scenery at the park. Each national park is set up with their own desired specifications, including upgraded Wi-Fi access points, workstations entailing of either hotel guest rooms within/nearby the park or on-grounds tents set up with portable power stations and Wi-Fi hotspot devices, and food plans. Originally introduced on a trial basis from April-July, it came back by popular demand in September. In fact, Environmental Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, seen as a rising-star in Japanese politics, even participated in the program when he video-conferenced into an internal meeting from Bandai-Asahi National Park in early September. Other participating national parks include: Japan’s largest national park, Setonaikai, spanning the Setonaikai Inland Sea and known for its fishing villages; Aso-Kuju known for its volcanoes, including Mt. Aso, the largest active one in Japan; and Nikko, considered one of the most beautiful parks in Japan with its Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines in a wooded mountainside.
For those who rather crave heart-thumping excitement, there is now an “Amusement Workation” at- Yomiuriland, a Japanese Amusement park in the Tokyo suburbs.(13) Tickets into the park cost 1,900 yen per person ($18) or 3,600 yen ($34) per pair, and offer a pool-side booth with Wi-Fi, power-supply, a table, two chairs, two sun lounge chairs, and a free drink at the adjacent La Pacine Restaurant. A scenic (and certainly unique) workstation set-up is also included for ticket-holders, who have access to work in the Ferris wheel for one hour with a pocket Wi-Fi. After work is done, teleworkers may amuse themselves on the many rides and enjoyments found in the park itself, have free towel rental at the neighboring Okanoyu onsen (with its 15 different baths), and for an additional 500 yen, have access to the on-site golf course with 20 swings and golf club rental included.
While these workation programs are just two examples currently taking place in Japan, there are a plethora of new and enticing workation campaigns that continue to emerge. Prefectures themselves have begun promoting their cities as great workation destinations, including those with refreshing onsen (Mie Prefecture), serene sights along the foothills of Mt. Fuji (Yamanashi Prefecture), and seaside ambiance and local delicacies (Kanagawa). (14, 15) With the interest of both businesses and government in workation programs, it will be interesting to see how the increase of workation programs will affect the mindset of some Japanese companies’ work cultures. 52% of 1,000 responders to a 2020 Japanese Trade Union Confederation survey indicated that they are working more now while teleworking during the pandemic than even before.(16) The fact that workation programs are designed to give more flexibility to workers and their employers may have some impact, with even one governmental employee in the meeting with Environment Minister Koizumi remarking that “It is important to trust employees rather than worrying about whether they are really working.” Whether their existence shifts mindsets or not, it would appear that workations will be around for much longer, particularly as they continue to be in high demand during this pandemic year.
4. Staycation Promotions
Along with tourism initiatives through the “Go To Travel” and workation campaigns, staycation programs from both the tourism sector and federal government have been introduced with even more ways for people to feel the excitement of travel during these unusual times.
From the tourism sector, Tokyo luxury hotels in particular have spearheaded this movement, especially as Tokyo was excluded from the “Go To Travel” destination list until October. These hotels, in addition to their already renowned accommodations, fitness centers, and restaurants, offer themed activities in their staycation packages for guests to experience. The “Edo Beauty Stay” package from Hoshinoya Tokyo Hotel, for example, pampers guests with a spa treatment, but also transports them back to the Edo Period (1603- 1868) by offering a traditional tea ceremony, shamisen lessons, and origami paper folding. (17) The Peninsula, Tokyo hotel offers their “We Meet Again- The Eight Loves of the Peninsula” staycation package, which includes all in-house amenities and check-out gift bags, and also allows guest to choose an activity of their preference from a list of featured Tokyo “loves”, including dim sum cooking classes, a tour of the Imperial Palace Gardens, exclusive VIP access to art collections, and more. (18) Each hotels’ packages are designed specifically for just one night’s rest, perfect for the local staycationer to experience the joys of travel while being close to home.
On the other hand, for individuals who truly miss traveling abroad, All Nippon Airways (ANA) came up with one solution by offering an exclusive “Hawaiian” experience on their “Riding Honu” aircraft.(19) In August, this airplane, painted to look like a giant sea turtle, offered a unique 90 minute ride departing from and landing at Narita Airport in Tokyo. Donning Hawaiian-themed shirts, staff members served passengers pineapple drinks and mojitos, screened videos, conducted a raffle, and handed out souvenirs. Taking precautions against Covid, the aircraft capacity was limited to 64%, but some 150 times that number applied to take the trip. This experience was a win-win for passengers and the airline alike, as not only did guests get to have the feeling of a tropical vacation, but the airline was also able to conduct maintenance on the aircraft.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government has also recently expanded their “Go To Travel” campaign by announcing “Go To Eat,” “Go To Event,” and “Go To Shotengai” initiatives (Shotengai is the Japanese word for a covered street market). The “Go To Eat” campaign was launched from the first of October, and will be advanced in November/December for Tokyo, and like the “Go To Travel” campaign, has a voucher system.(20) Diners can receive a 25% off voucher at participating restaurants in a given area. There is also a point system that diners can apply to use at these restaurants, with more discounts received based on returns to an establishment. Currently, some 33 prefectures are participating in this initiative. The “Go To Event” campaign was launched on October 30th, and also provides options for either a voucher for 20% off of the ticket or a coupon for purchasable items at the venue at the value of 20% of the ticket fee.(21) At this time, only Universal Studios Japan in Osaka is participating in this program. “Go To Shotengai” is still in the works, and has yet to launch. As these initiatives are still new, there is still little data in regards to their usage, but if the “Go To Travel” campaign is any indication, these programs hold much promise in attracting travelers and local residents alike.
Through the various public and private initiatives and campaigns, Japan has succeeded in increasing domestic travel. According to information from Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, and Tourism, and as assembled below in Figure 1, domestic travelers staying at tourist accommodations increased to 52% of 2019 figures in September.(22) In comparison, May had the year’s lowest figures at roughly 15% year-on-year of guests staying in hotels and other lodgings.
These statistics are even more striking if comparing domestic and international travel. Figure 2 shows the volume that travel agencies have seen in transactions for domestic and international travel, as well as the number from international tourists. As one may notice, international travel and guests have remained almost nonexistent, while domestic tourism has increased after having reached similar lows. With the international travel ban still in place, the rebounding of domestic tourists has surely been a welcome to a distressed tourism industry. There is hope, however, that things will make a recovery soon, as it was announced last month that foreign tourists may be allowed back into the country again on a trial basis from April 2021.23 In the meantime, the national government and tourism-related businesses will surely continue their efforts to attract those close by to participate in their “Go To Travel” campaign*, workation promotions, and staycation programs.
(*Since the writing of this article, the Japanese government has suspended the "Go To Travel" Campaign in areas where the coronavirus is spreading.)
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