Record numbers of inbound travelers, glowing media reports, and growing infrastructure: it’s official, tourism is booming in Kyoto and locals are determined to keep it going. Mr. Shuhei Akahoshi, director general of the Kyoto Convention & Visitors Bureau, reveals some of the latest strategies.
How kind of tourism figures does Kyoto see around cherry blossom and fall foliage seasons?
Based on April 2014 figures, the average occupancy rate during cherry blossom season was 98 percent. For foliage season in November and December was a little bit lower, around 95 percent.
Have there been initiatives to disperse tourism toward other seasons?
That is one of our big challenges. We are planning to provide more information about other seasons and to make journalists aware of how charming Kyoto is during spring and winter. In my personal opinion, one of the best seasons in Kyoto is May and June — the fresh green view is just marvelous and full of energy, and visitors can relax with fewer crowds.
Have you seen travelers’ interests and behavior shift in recent years?
Yes, their behavior is changing. Travelers seem to want a more “local” feel — for example, cooking classes that include experience of buying ingredients at a local market. We’re finding many more foreign visitors are seeking out local restaurants, such as ramen and udon noodle shops.
Can you share some insight on the international travelers who are coming to Kyoto?
The total amount of overnight visitors is increasing, and there has been an increase in foreign visitors overall. Our figures for 2014 are set to surpass 2013, when we saw 1.13 million foreign overnight visitors. Prior to that, Kyoto had 840,000 foreign visitors in 2012 and 52,000 in 2011. We have especially seen a big increase in tourists from Spain and Mexico, as well as China and Taiwan.
Can you pinpoint the reasons behind this growth?
The major factors include a weaker Japanese yen, promotions in cooperation with Kyoto’s tourism industry, and positive media reports. We have had good exposure in the media due to the efforts of our representatives in 10 global cities — New York, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Sydney, Shanghai, Taipei, Seoul, Dubai, and Hong Kong — as well as support for quality media assets.
Speaking of media, did you see a big impact after being included in Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Cities in 2014?
Absolutely, yes. With regards to the U.S. market, we saw nearly a 10 percent increase between April and January, compared to the same period last year. And the increase of all foreign overnight visitors is around 15 percent, which is the second largest increase next to Taiwan.
In terms of promotion, what niche travel topics have contributed to Kyoto’s growth?
Culinary travel would be one of the big contributors thanks to the Japanese traditional cuisine known as “Washoku,” which is now part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Kyoto culture features rich history, tradition and hospitality. Our historical buildings, traditional crafts, and unique way of living are becoming more and more popular.
Experiences related to animation or manga, such as the Kyoto International Manga Museum, have also become very marketable.
Have you seen an increase in bookings due to Kyoto’s promotion of “halal tourism?”
Yes, the rate of inbound tourist from the United Arab Emirates has increased about 240 percent compared to last year.
How has the tourism boom impacted local infrastructure development?
Several hotel projects are in the process of developing. On the other hand, some vacant machiyas (traditional wooden townhouse) have been repurposed into unique accommodations or restaurants. But the total amount of accommodation is not enough for Kyoto so far, which is another one of our challenges.
Interestingly, many companies are now capitalizing on the inbound market: translation services, reservation systems, ticket sales. Several private tourism companies have opened their own information centers, such as JTB and H.I.S., to accommodate these inbound tourists.
Has this impacted luxury hotel development in Kyoto?
As the average daily rate, RevPAR and occupancy rates in Kyoto increase, we are seeing much more demand for hotel development. However, Kyoto city has a strong policy about the design or height of buildings to preserve its views and unique scenery. In addition, Kyoto is a small city and does not have a lot of space for development.
But even with these conditions, several luxury brands have launched or are launching in Kyoto, including: Ritz-Carlton Kyoto; Suiran, A Luxury Collection Hotel; and the upcoming Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto. In Kyoto, we aim for both quality and quantity, so we are focusing on luxury travelers.
Have there been any changes regarding Japanese visas that have been helpful in increasing tourism?
Visa waivers have allowed many more visitors from Southeast Asian countries and the Republic of China to travel to Japan. We hope the visa waiver will also attract countries with a high GDP per capita, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
What are the major goals for tourism in Kyoto in the next 5 years?
Kyoto has set a goal of achieving 3 million foreign lodgers and an annual tourist spend of 1 trillion yen, which is around $12 billion, by 2020.
To achieve this goal, we will seek to simultaneously raise both the quantity and quality of tourism in Kyoto. We plan to do this by reducing seasonal variation in occupancy, attracting new hotels and activating traditional ryokans, and improving the environment for tourists.