Tokyo’s Peak Tourism Problem and How to Solve It

If you haven’t visited Asakusa in the last few years, you’ll probably be surprised by how much things have changed. At least if you are identifiably western in appearance, you’ll be greeted by a chorus of “Welcome to Japan!” from over enthusiastic hawkers pushing their tour, English menu or rickshaw ride. I can still remember when the tourist vendors used to ignore non-Japanese in favor of the domestic tourists. Now, non-Japanese are the tourism industry in Japan.

The numbers from the Japan National Tourism Organization indicate clearly what’s happened.
Number of international visitors in 2011: 6.2 million
Number of international visitors in 2016: 24.04 million
Spending by international visitors in 2016: 3.75 trillion yen ($US33 billion)

Tokyo’s Peak Tourism Problem

Kaminarimon Gate in Asakusa, Tokyo.
Kaminarimon Gate in Asakusa, Tokyo. Photo by Greg Lane

The numbers visiting Japan are not about to drop, but the huge influx of tourists has started to degrade the experience. Traversing Nakamise Dori on the approach to Sensoji now is like negotiating the Chuo Line platform at Shinjuku Station during rush hour. Takeshita Dori in Harajuku used to be a spot to see quirky Harajuku style fashion – now it’s 90% international tourists. Unless you’re into crepes and crappy souvenirs, there’s little of interest anymore. Want to visit Hayao Miyazaki’s Ghibli Museum in Mitaka? Make sure you book your tickets two months in advance. Locals are noticing too – Kyoto residents complain about hordes of tourists and minpaku (AirBnB) continues to be controversial.

24 million tourists sounds like a lot, but France – the world leader in international tourism – hosted 84.5 million international tourists in 2015, and there’s no suggestion of a peak tourism problem there. So why would it be a problem in Tokyo or Japan? Part of the reason is that Japan as a tourism destination is still an unknown quantity. People outside Japan have trouble naming a single attraction in the city. Typically with western tourists (less so with Asian tourists), awareness extends to Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kyoto and Hiroshima. This means that lots of first time visitors to Tokyo are doing their research to find the top spots and only coming up with half a dozen points of interest.

Solving Peak Tourism

Tomioka Hachiman Shrine, Fukagawa
Tomioka Hachiman Shrine, Fukagawa

Sparing a major earthquake, natural disaster or missile strike, Japan’s tourism numbers will continue to grow in the short term. Just looking at the enormous potential scale and proximity of the Chinese market, and the number of people who haven’t visited Japan yet, there is definitely plenty of growth left. But tourism shouldn’t just be about the numbers. Tourism has the potential to internationalize Japan, to revitalize regional economies and to enhance Japan’s “soft power”. For this, quality beats numbers and will lead to a more sustainable industry.

Spreading the benefits in Tokyo

To date, providing things for tourists to do has involved squeezing more and more of them into attractions and experiences that were not conceived for international tourists. However, there is huge potential to invest in new attractions, new experiences and areas outside the usual places.

Although they make a lot of local residents (including me) scratch their heads, there are purpose built activities and attractions that have succeeded in attracting the attention and yen of foreign tourists. The Robot Restaurant has been drawing in foreign tourists to their over the top dinner shows for the past five years. You also might have noticed “Mari Car” – the costumed go karts driven by tourists buzzing around Tokyo streets. Then there is the samurai museum in Kabukicho – where visitors can try on the armour and take photographs. Along the same lines, how about a “Japan Culture Museum” where you can experience different aspects of Japanese culture in one spot? Visitors could experience wearing a sumo mawashi, pound mochi or get a five minute taiko lesson.

We also see huge potential in the eastern part of Tokyo. Two areas in particular are Fukagawa and Sumida. The key to both is clustering attractions together and cohesive marketing.

Getting people to the regions

The place where tourism has the most potential to benefit local communities isn’t Tokyo – it’s the economically stagnant, depopulated Japanese countryside. Despite their problems, these places are the reservoirs of Japan’s traditional culture. They also possess fantastic architectural, cultural and natural assets – from 16th century castles to festivals with thousand year histories and wild, unspoiled mountain gorges.

One of the major problems again is awareness. Beyond images of monkeys soaking in hot pools, high speed trains zooming past Mount Fuji and nuclear disasters, the world knows little of Japan’s countryside. One possible solution to this is event marketing. Existing events (Nebuta, Tanabata and Awaodori etc.) are great but they have very little impact on international tourist numbers – partly due to savvy domestic tourists booking out all the accommodation six months in advance. How about an “International Festival of Sushi” that embraces all the “variations” on the cuisine around the world and brings everyone together in a single location for a one week festival?

There are workable solutions, but they require developing experiences for international visitors rather than filling the trough with cash for promotion agencies and the usual corporate Japan suspects.

This is an abridged version of the article that appeared on the Fast train Limited blog. Go to their blog to read the full article.

Greg Lane is a long time resident of Tokyo and the co-founder of Fast Train Limited, the company behind popular online travel and living guides Tokyo Cheapo, Japan Cheapo, and London Cheapo .