Before the pandemic, Japanese tourists were among the world’s biggest spenders among travelers, shelling out $29.145 billion in 2019 and $28.097 billion the previous year.
As BIMP-EAGA countries focus on reviving tourism after arrivals plunged 76% and tourism receipts shrank 79.1% to $6.2 billion in 2020, how should they attract Japanese tourists?
In a recent webinar organized by the ASEAN-Japan Centre, experts on the Japanese outbound travel market weighed in on recent trends and consumer sentiments. The webinar was supported by the BIMP-EAGA Facilitation Centre. The subregion is part of ASEAN.
1. Use both digital and traditional platforms in tourism marketing.
A survey her company conducted last year to gauge Japanese tourists’ sentiment about ASEAN countries as a destination showed they rely the most on travel magazines, both print and digital, to research about places they want to visit, said Haruna Chinzei, account manager at Tokyo-based Marketing Voice Ltd. Online blogs and reviews are among the top source of information.
The survey respondents are over 20 years old, travel abroad at least once every 3 years, and plan to travel abroad in the future.
The choice of information source also depends on the age of the user, said Chinzei, noting females in their 20s rely most on social media and word of mouth by family and friends, indicating that this group prefers information from someone they feel close to. Females in their 30s to 50s refer to online blogs and review sites most often, while travel agency websites are mainly used by people (male or female) over 60 years old.
“The data indicates that it is necessary to use different media to approach different age groups,” she said.
Kei Shibata, co-founder and CEO of digital media group Venture Republic, which runs Japanese travel media brands TRAVEL.jp, Trip101, and allstay, also expressed the importance of using both online and offline platforms to reach the Japanese market.
Citing data from travel and hospitality market research firm Phocuswright, he said 3 years ago, a little less than 50% of the travel booking in Japan was made through online channels. He presented Phocuswright data in 2018 and 2019 that showed more than 50% of travel bookings were made via offline channels. He advised BIMP-EAGA's tourism players to design their promotions to enhance both online and offline bookings for tour packages, flights, and hotels.
Chinzei noted that Japanese tourists associate Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, and Malaysia with “beautiful nature and scenery” and the Philippines with “charming beaches.”
Given that almost half of those who have not visited Brunei had difficulty imagining what the Bruneian cuisine was like, she said there is a huge potential to promote it to Japanese tourists.
For Indonesia, while majority answered they want to enjoy the country’s natural attractions, only 12% to 15% knew about the two natural wonders cited in the survey, while around 60% have never even heard of them. This indicates the potential to promote such attractions to nature tourists.
For Malaysia, the most visited by Japanese tourists among BIMP-EAGA members, Chinzei noted that while majority of respondents want to enjoy the country’s natural attractions, only less than 20% recognized Kota Kinabalu, and more than half have never even heard of it. “It indicates more communication is needed to make Japanese travelers aware of what they can enjoy in Kota Kinabalu.” Kota Kinabalu is famous for Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Malaysia and Borneo.
In the Philippines, 45.7% of the respondents wanted to enjoy nature and scenery, while another 40.7% wanted to rest and rejuvenate.
2. Take advantage of instant messaging apps.
Shibata stressed the importance of digital marketing to reach travelers. “It's all about mobile mobile mobile mobile,” he said. “Here in Asia… people are obsessed with their smartphones.”
He urged industry players to deploy mobile chat or instant messaging platforms to reach travelers. “This is actually one of the most powerful platforms and perhaps is still underestimated.”
He mentioned instant messaging platforms WeChat, Kakao Talk, and the LINE, which are “extremely popular” in the People’s Republic of China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Thailand, with penetration rates close to 100%.
At TRAVEL.jp, he said they use LINE to sell bookings for hotels, flights, and tour packages on behalf of partner providers. The site sends promotions via push notifications to users, who can then book via the app.
In Japan, he said LINE is the most popular instant messaging app, with monthly active users totaling 85 million. Apart from messaging and chat, people use LINE for its news and wallet features. In his slide presentation, Twitter comes in second with 45 million monthly active users, Instagram with 33 million, Facebook Messenger with 26 million, TikTok with 9.5 million, and LinkedIn with 2 million. Messenger is used by the Japanese for business.
He said some hotels in Japan already allow guests to use mobile messaging apps to check in and out and interact with the concierge. He touted that the open rate for chat platforms is much higher at 7%–15% versus e-mail newsletters, which only have “a 1% chance or even lower.”
Mobile messaging platforms can also allow travel providers to do location-based marketing. He cited his company’s experience working with a hotel which had almost zero bookings at its new location in Hakone 3 weeks before opening. TRAVEL.jp helped promote the new hotel via chat messages targeting users located in nearby prefectures, and within 48 hours, all 780 rooms were booked for the month.
3. Tell a story.
“I very much want to emphasize that if you want to promote destinations, you need to tell a story,” said Shibata, noting TRAVEL.jp and Trip 101 have published more than 90,000 travel guide articles online. They work with hundreds of writers to produce content.
He stressed the power of storytelling, noting one of their users actually traveled from Hong Kong, China to Hokkaido, Japan to visit a blueberry farm after reading an article about it on TRAVEL.jp while on the subway.
As for distribution, he said branded media platforms are among the most popular among Japanese travelers. Shibata’s brands, TRAVEL.jp, Trip 101, and allstay have some 40 million monthly users.
4. Infuse fun in ecotourism.
At the same webinar, Masaru Takayama, chairperson of the Asian Ecotourism Network, highlighted the need for ecotourism as countries revive the travel sector in the wake of the pandemic. He said ecotourism should offer fun experiences to tourists so they can appreciate nature and learn to protect natural assets.
In targeting travelers for ecotourism, he said the promotion must be evidence-based to ensure the quality of the tourists. A promotion that targets everyone would not be suitable.
BIMP-EAGA also has to think about the implications of carbon dioxide emissions from flights to and from Japan. “We don't want to go back to the era where “overtourism” was the trend. With a mass market, there is less value, and the quality of tourism is very low.” He said though mass tourism can also be sustainable, noting big hotels and airlines are now working together to offer more sustainable options to travelers.
Takayama cited the 2021 Sustainable Travel Report from booking.com, which surveyed over 29,000 people over 30 countries online, with over 60% saying the pandemic has made them want to travel more sustainably. Half of the respondents also believe the pandemic has shifted their attitude to make positive changes in their everyday lives.
To promote ecotourism in BIMP-EAGA, he advised tourism players to target people who understand and care about nature. He said Japan has 3,700 nature schools, which are supported by local governments, NGOs, and the private sector.
With students learning about Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and nature, tourism players should link the SDGs with ecotourism when marketing to young people and for school excursions.
Noting a trend toward adventure travel, like rafting, Takayama said while this is nature-based it should also be linked with conservation to minimize the impact to the environment in the destinations involved.
With people not being able to travel yet because of the pandemic, they instead rely on the internet for information about future travel destinations. As such, tourism players should provide information about sustainable options. Some countries, for instance, provide information about sustainable accommodations, eco-tours, and restaurants, including organic food availability.
In his welcome remarks, ASEAN-Japan Centre Secretary General Dr. Kunihiko Chris Hirabayashi said tourism is among the industry that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
He noted the subregion’s rich natural environment remains one of its main attractions and assets. To build back better and stronger forward, he said BIMP-EAGA must improve travelers’ confidence; understand and track new market trends and drivers, as well as promote travel by enhancing digital transformation; and commit to build a more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive tourism sector, leveraging on renewed interest in sustainable travel and ecotourism.
In his opening remarks, Shu Kawano, director at the Second Southeast Asia Division of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said his country is committed to help BIMP-EAGA meet its Vision 2025 development goals, which includes tourism as one of its main pillars.
Noraini Tersad, acting deputy director of Brunei’s Tourism Department, said she looks forward to strengthening further collaboration with the Government of Japan in various areas, including capacity-building programs, quality tourism, and information sharing of best practices.
Brunei chairs the BIMP-EAGA Joint Tourism Development Cluster.