How can we attract the "right" visitors?

How can we attract the "right" visitors?

May 02, 2024

2024 is set to be the biggest year yet for international visitors coming to Japan and while most news articles focus on overtourism and the bad apples in the crowd- I’d like to highlight how inbound tourism is having a positive influence on the local people, planet, proactive mindset and a more sustainable economy. Also, ideas for how we might appeal to more of these “good tourists” to enjoy Japan travel.

Appeal of Old Things

‘Dark, dusty, cold, full of bugs and broken’ are the typical negative connotations my students, neighbors and even local guides have said to me when referring to old buildings. But like many international visitors, I’ve always been drawn to the use of old things and old structures which hold secrets of a bygone era’s stories, history, legends and a show of skill from artisans, craftspeople and artists whose craft is vanishing.

The broken roof tile in the picture above was one of my favorite things to see on a visit to the PONYO animated film location of Tomonoura one year. The swirls of power in balance design, which are so typical of temple or traditional house roof tiles, made of simple natural clay materials, but so expertly crafted that they last for a century. Preserved and reused in a stylish local cafe run by a young entrepreneur who had a vision for pulling the past into present modern use through his design of the eatery filled with salvaged items from local derelict buildings.

If you find the details of daily life in Japan interesting, as many international residents and travelers do, you will never be bored. It is a great skill to hone as a traveler- even if you are traveling where you live. And the bonus is that you will also really enjoy travels in Japan no matter where you choose to go- the more off-the-beaten-path backroad routes the better.

As travel guides and content creators for the tourism market we can highlight the appeal of the lesser known, hidden-in-plain-sight gems of daily life or traditional that would never otherwise be seen by visitors.

Last month, I had a lovely couple I was guiding from a cruise ship one day and we would see huge groups of 50–100 people from their ship on official tours walk by at various points of our tour. The couple looked at me and said with dismay, “How can those people walking by so quickly possibly know any of these interesting and lovely details that you are sharing with us?” … the short answer is they can’t, but the question is, do they care?

The Ugly Tourist

Of course there are exceptions, there are FIT (free independent travelers) who do a lot of their own research before visiting and are able to find hidden gems and enjoy engaging positively with locals. The bad apples, or the Ugly Tourists, however, do NOT appreciate the mundane, everyday charms of travel- in Japan or most likely anywhere else either.

Sometimes I do a tour and notice a disturbing shift in the energy once we arrive at the most famous area. There is a negative, highly-charged toxic vibe as tourists push ahead of others. Crowds push and rush with a sense of entitlement.

This ugly tourist is someone rushing around and ruining the experience for everyone else in order to get their picture, eat their food, buy their souvenirs and then rush on to the next “top sight”. Everything they are doing is a shallow transaction, exploitative tourism that does not benefit local communities or the environment and ruins the experience for their fellow travelers.

Should we feel sorry for them as I doubt that they remember or appreciate the experience. Their coveted bucket list photos of places they actually didn’t care about when they visited are just a notch in their social media arsenal of destinations slaughtered.

Unfortunately, superficial mass tourism is unwelcome and annoying, but is fueled by misguided government and destination management that prioritizes quantity over quality to maximize income. Every country has people guilty of it when they travel- even Japan- so how can we change and attract the good travelers?

Our aim should be to bring out the good travelers in all of us- both domestic and inbound. Attract the humble, respectful traveler who seeks out a destination with appreciation of preservation, reuse, and local, ethical & sustainable products and services.

Good Travelers Seek Out Sustainability

The good news is that many visitors are coming to Japan with a higher standard and expectation of sustainable life, work and travel which is softly pushing Japan in a more sustainable business, products and services direction. This then encourages more of the right kind of traveler through positive reviews and recommendations to friends, family and coworkers as well as on social media.

Japan is still a challenge for vegan and vegetarian travelers who want to avoid meat, fish and dairy- foods which create the worst damage for our people and planet. But in most destinations now, thanks to the steady influx of international visitor who are asking for plantbased options, more people offer plantbased options as well as have a better understanding of the meat, dairy and fish industry issues. There is also more welcome promotion of locally sourced vegetables, fruits, fermented foods and plantbased proteins listed in ingredients and dishes on menus. Google maps and HappyCow listings for plantbased in Japan are rapidly increasing.

Guiding and traveling in Japan is great exercise, many of my guests say they are collecting 20,000 steps each day as they walk around cities and sights. Yet there are ridiculously few places to refill water bottles for healthy hydration and I am often met with a complete disregard from information center staff, train station staff and restaurant staff who suggest we fill up in toilet bathroom sinks -yuck!- or buy a single-use plastic bottle of water -ugh! For such a clean, organized and efficient, great service, high-tech Japan — a country proud of its soft water for sake- there is a ridiculously level of understanding, ethical concerns, or care about providing safe and clean drinking water.

It is a fact that single-use plastic bottled water has higher concentrations of microplastic for the user, is made from oil and uses fossil fuels in its creation and delivery, and creates problems after use for our garbage incinerators, landfill, is shipped to less developed countries and also ends up in our oceans. Nothing about using plastic-water bottles is better than tap water or filtered water unless there is a state of emergency or natural disaster and the tap water is compromised or stopped.

Luckily we have organizations like MyMizu showing us where we can refill for free with safe and clean drinking water in Japan. I try to recommend these places by including them on my tours routes which visitors appreciate. Take time also to thank the staff and promote the spots on social media to help elevate the value of refilling.

Compounding the lack of zero-waste refill stations and people being forced to buy single-use plastic bottles of water is the lack of garbage cans anywhere. This is causing areas like beautiful Miyajima to be cluttered with plastic cups and straws in front of a Tori gate esteemed for a love of nature.

How to Appeal to the Right Kind of Foreign Tourist

The good news is that there are many good visitors enjoying their travels on Japan now and plan to return. The challenge is how to continue to build on sustainable, ethical, logical, kind and safe opportunities for more tourists like them to come and enjoy travel in Japan.

My top 5 ways to attract good visitors:

  • Provide low-impact foods: highlight local fruits, vegetables and plantbased protein options that everyone can eat.

  • Increase water refill stations for zero-waste hydration to boost the health of locals and visitors alike while reducing garbage issues.

  • Take away bad options at destinations — ban single use plastic bags, straws or containers & replace with reusable, paper or biodegradable.

  • Promote local products, sights & services that support local artisans & traditional culture. Reuse of old structures and materials by renovating and upcycling instead of replacing is a great way to do this.

  • Train local guides to engage with visitors, know how to avoid crowds, highlight local products, encourage use of refill water stations, and suggest great plantbased options.

We are all travelers

There is a lot of negativity about tourism as it suddenly increases, but there are so many positive benefits of travel for international communication, mutual understanding across borders, boosting the economy, support of local products and preservation of traditional culture.

Hiroshima is a great example of how tourism can be used to rebuild a city and follow a vision to spread a positive message of peace. But every destination has room for improvement and it is an ongoing process of assessment, training and strategy creation. It would be great to see a percentage of tourism revenue go to clean renewable energy for local destinations as well as create high-quality chilled water refill stations and to plant trees for cleaner air as well as shade.

Finding ways to attract the right kind of tourist to bring in income as well as more sustainable practices is also an opportunity to preserve the environment, and our communities, which then enhances both the visitor and local experience.

There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ in tourism as we all travel at one time or another- we can all strive to be a better tourist.

Hope you enjoyed this post and let me know if you have any other suggestions, comments or links to related stories and information- thanks!

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