Japan’s Setouchi Region is not well-known among the 30 million overseas visitors who came the country last year. Even in 2017, this lesser-known coastal area southwest of Kyoto received just 690,000 overnight foreign guests, among the lowest number of overnight visitors of any region in Japan. Yet this relatively unknown region is starting to gain major acclaim on the international tourism stage, both in the media and among overseas visitors alike.

Last year, Skift wrote about the growing popularity of Setouchi’s Naoshima, Inujima, and Teshima Islands, an archipelago now experiencing an upswing in foreign art tourism thanks to its world-class collection of contemporary museums and installations from well-known designers like Yayoi Kusama. Better yet, in January, the New York Times named the region to its annual 52 Places to Go in 2019 list, adding a further spike in visibility and prestige for potential overseas travelers.

However, the positive publicity generated by art tourism in and around Naoshima Island will not revitalize Setouchi’s tourism economy on its own. “The challenge we face is keeping people not just in Naoshima, but within the region,” said Tomohiro Muraki, chief marketing officer for the Setouchi Tourism Authority (STA). Instead, art tourism is just one component of a larger visitor development plan for the region, which includes cultivating new tourism-friendly attractions and experiences, and new marketing strategies to continue growing awareness of the destination and attracting new guests.

How will Setouchi achieve its goal of increasing the region’s overseas visitor traffic? And more importantly, as tourism interest in Setouchi continues to grow, how can the area sustain this enthusiasm, ensuring the entire region (and not just hotspots like Naoshima) benefit from the result?

Marketing to the Right Visitors

Setouchi Tourism Authority (STA) has made increasing annual visitors a top priority. How do they intend to achieve this goal? It will depend on the creation of a detailed, and targeted, marketing plan. “The most important step for us is coming up with a strategic marketing plan for more people to visit this region,” said Muraki.

Tourism destinations around the world have long built marketing roadmaps to promote themselves to potential guests. Very few have designed anything with the level of precision found in STA’s current marketing effort, which is based upon surveys of overseas tourism partners, analysis of historic visitation data, and a sophisticated customer segmentation strategy created to reach the most receptive travelers from targeted overseas markets at the right moment in their trip-planning process.

The marketing plan starts with a focus on three core travel segments built around thematic interests: educated travelers, special interest hunters, and resort vacationers. “We made the segmentation by surveying overseas companies, analyzing the results, and coming up with our own conclusions,” said Muraki. “After segmenting the travelers, we considered which segments best matched the Setouchi region.” The relevant areas of alignment are connected to the three main selling points for the destination, which include: Setouchi’s beautiful outdoor spaces and scenic coastal landscape, its historic cultural attractions such as the famous Himeji Castle and the iconic Itsukushima Shrine, and cultural amenities like contemporary art installations at Naoshima.

This segmentation strategy is then paired with offline and online promotional activity aligned with different phases of the visitor planning process, which include the following stages: dream, consider, activate, travel, and share. STA then matches each stage with the appropriate promotional tool. For instance, they use social media and consumer travel magazines during the dreaming and considering phases, while online travel agency sites and review platforms are important during the activate and travel phases.

STA is further refining these marketing efforts to prioritize overseas visitors from so-called “long-haul” markets in North America, Australia, and Europe. As Muraki explained, current visitation rates to Japan from these markets remain relatively low. However, the percentage of overseas travelers in these markets who are interested in activities aligned to Setouchi’s main selling points is quite high. “For the educated traveler group, we found that 25 percent of the international visitors from Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Australia fall into this segment,” said Muraki. “This is in comparison to just ten percent of the visitors to Japan from Asian countries.”

Initially the destination is focusing on broad-based awareness of the region. “Our strategy is for the western countries to actually to get to know our region first,” said Muraki. “We need to increase the number of people in the dream/consider phase.”

Laying the Groundwork

Marketing is a critical component of Setouchi’s tourism revitalization and visitor growth plans, and building awareness and growing visitor traffic is only half of the challenge. That’s why tourism leaders in the destination are now working to encourage local businesses to launch tourism-related activities, increase accommodation capacity, and design travel experiences that can help ensure overseas visitors stick around once they arrive.

Today, STA works closely with local tourism suppliers, providing them guidance on product development and offering assistance with marketing and PR. “It’s really important to have the local suppliers get involved and help us develop more businesses around the region. said Muraki. “This will keep people from traveling to other destinations right after their visit to Naoshima Island.”

A great example of this strategy at work is Setouchi’s collaboration with the Setouchi Yacht Charter, a company targeting the affluent audience with day trips and overnight tours to various island destinations in the Seto Inland Sea. “We’ve been working with local suppliers like Seto Charter who can transport visitors from one island to another,” said Muraki. “It makes it easier for them to experience the area’s local culture and traditions when they extend their stay within the region.”

For instance, Setouchi Yacht Charter now offers excursions to other lesser-visited islands in the Setouchi region. This includes Shodoshima Island, known for its soy sauce factories and sake breweries, or Ogijima Island, where visitors can learn about traditional Japanese fishing techniques. “Not everyone is interested in art,” said Hiroyuki Saito, administration manager for Setouchi Yacht Charter. “We want to encourage more people to come to experience the ‘real’ Japan.”

The development of Seto Yacht Charter represents much more than a new tourism company. Instead, it’s part of an increasingly symbiotic strategy STA is building with local tourism businesses. These suppliers make it possible for STA to quickly expand the area’s tourism infrastructure and transportation options, making it easier for visitors to explore the area. They also provide potential guests with planned and custom trip options, simplifying their itinerary planning and decision-making so that Setouchi is a more attractive stopover point while in Japan.

In return, STA provides suppliers like Seto Yacht Charter with insights, marketing, and guidance to support the rollout of trip experiences that it thinks will be most attractive to overseas guests. “They’ve been a really huge help to us, because we probably would’ve gone in another direction,” said Saito. “Even for inbound customers, they don’t come to Japan and automatically think, ‘I’m going to go cruising,’ like they do in Croatia or Bali. There’s an education process and a distribution process. It’s a bunch of layers at the same time.”

Conclusion

Japan’s Setouchi Region may not receive the same level of visitor traffic seen by popular destinations like Tokyo or Kyoto, though it is growing. In fact, this lesser-known part of the country has a wealth of advantages suggesting the future of tourism here is looking bright.

One advantage is a sophisticated, data-driven marketing strategy, which helps to promote the destination’s strengths to targeted overseas visitor groups most likely to be receptive to the message. Another is STA’s innovative destination marketing organization, which is helping to not only promote the region’s strengths, but to actively nurture the development of new tourism infrastructure, experiences, and amenities.

The Setouchi region may be best known today as the home of Naoshima Island. But with the help of innovative ideas and smart planning, the area’s tourism story is just getting started.

This content was created collaboratively by Japan National Tourism Organization and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.