After long having flocked to the airport in record numbers for trips to destinations like London, Paris and Rome, Japanese travellers are now staying close to home. A lower yen, competition from other Asian destinations and onerous demands from the domestic travel industry are mainly to blame. But also, many Japanese have been scared away from European travel due to concerns over terrorism in France and the Middle East.
While Japan has been touting its success in attracting record numbers of overseas visitors — 13.41 million in 2014 — the number of Japanese travelling in the other direction has fallen dramatically over the past two years. After setting record highs for outbound travel with more than 18.4 million visits in 2012, the numbers fell to around 17.4 million visits in 2013 and to 16.9 million in 2014. This year, the number is expected to be even lower.
Specifically, outbound travel to the UK dropped to an average of 232,000 annual trips from Japan, following a high of 556,000 trips in 2000. Similarly, while Switzerland once hosted nearly a million overnight stays by Japanese visitors in 2000, it has seen less than half that number in recent years, according to Fabien Clerc, Japan director for Switzerland Tourism.
Although many in the European travel industry cite the weakening yen against either the euro or British pound as an issue, there are other factors at play. One is that other parts of Asia simply offer cheaper — and geographically closer — alternative destinations. Japanese travellers have simply shifted their interest from Europe to shorter-haul Asian destinations, such as Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam. The increasing number of travellers to Europe from the rest of Asia also has had an effect.
“Growing tourism from China and South Korea to Europe means that, when Japanese tour operators try to renegotiate deals on local services [because of the weaker yen], the hotels and bus companies can just accept more bookings from those other Asian countries,” says Otto Benz, Lufthansa German Airlines’ general manager for Japan.
Ashley Harvey, Japan country manager at the national tourism agency VisitBritain, says it is not only on price that Japan’s tour operators are falling foul of the European travel industry. “In 2015, Europe is no longer a buyer’s market, and hoteliers are no longer keen to accept the Japanese travel trade’s terms and conditions,” suggests Harvey. “These are completely out of sync with the standards from the rest of the world.”
Rules that were designed to provide Japanese travellers with consumer protection are one problem, such as the ability to reserve space on package tours without putting down a deposit until 30 days before departure (45 days during the peak season). There are also penalty provisions that trigger refunds to Japanese travellers for failure to deliver any part of a specified tour package.
“Hoteliers know that Japanese tour ‘bookings’ come with up to 90% cancellation rates,” explains Harvey, who says that the risk of cancellations and punitive compensation payouts are “something hoteliers in Europe no longer need to accept”.
A solution to this would require government-level reform. But Lufthansa’s Benz points out that it is not only European airlines and destinations that would benefit from a boost in Japanese tourist numbers, but also Japanese domestic travel agencies, which earn higher margins on long-haul trips.
“The Japanese government has been very focused on boosting inbound travel in recent years — with considerable success, thanks in large measure to the depreciation of the yen. But it should also focus on travel in the other direction,” suggests Benz.
“In my opinion, it definitely would help if the Japanese government, at this very critical moment, would articulate that Japanese people should not refrain from travelling abroad.”
Japanese travellers also appear more sensitive than most to headline-grabbing bits of bad news, says Hiroaki Nagahara, Japan sales director at Finnair and a 30-year airline industry veteran.
“Bookings to everywhere in Europe have been affected by the Paris attacks and the ISIS [Islamic State] killing of Japanese hostages,” says Nagahara, who estimates it may take months to get back to normal.
Finnair has been benefiting from growing interest in Scandinavia, as well as in emerging European destinations such as Slovenia and Croatia, which it serves. In this light, Nagahara believes that European airlines should reposition their advertising to promote destinations rather than their modern fleets and in-flight services.
Also, the global travel industry has shifted its focus somewhat away from Japan to China and South Korea; and Nagahara points out that some countries and regions have outsourced — or even shut down — their tourist promotion operations in Tokyo. (A number of the tourist boards approached for this article were surprisingly difficult to locate, while the phone number listed for one simply went unanswered.)
More global travel by young Japanese people would bring long-term benefits to the domestic economy as well, suggests Benz.
“Young people should be encouraged to travel abroad,” he says. “In the future, when the Japanese economy becomes more globalised, they will need people who understand what is happening in the rest of the world.”© Japan Today