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At the beginning of this year, Japan was gearing up to meet an ambitious goal by year’s end: to welcome 40 million tourists, the country’s highest-ever visitor count.

Seven months into the year, and you can add that goal to the long list of dashed hopes wrought by the pandemic. Indeed, it was this week that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were meant to begin. The Games would have served as the capstone moment of Japan’s several-years-long strategy to open up the country to a broader array of visitors by hosting large-scale global events intended to widen the country’s appeal and perceived accessibility. By all accounts, that strategy had been working.

A pared-down Olympics have now been rescheduled for July 2021, but there is still a genuine measure of doubt about whether they will take place all. The head of the Japan Medical Association has said the 2021 Games should be contingent on a vaccine being available, and Olympic officials have indicated they won’t reschedule the Games for a second time if they can’t take place a year from now. Furthermore, surveys show that not all Japanese want the games to go forward at all.

However, even in a worst case scenario — the Games don’t go forward — Japan’s long-term tourism play may remain unscathed. The Japan National Tourism Organization, the nation’s government-funded tourism board, confirmed for Skift that while the 2020 benchmark has been frozen for now, a longer-term goal of reaching 60 million annual visitors by 2030 still stands.

Preparation for the Games — which included making Japan more linguistically accessible, improving infrastructure, and widening accommodation options like Airbnb — may prove more important for tourism than the Games themselves, Kei Shibata, co-founder and CEO of the largest travel metasearch and content platform in Japan, Venture Republic, told Skift.

“Generally speaking I am optimistic [about the future of Japan’s tourism industry] but at the same time even in the worst case scenario where the Olympics won’t happen, I personally think it’s not going to actually [have] a tremendous impact to the Japanese tourism industry,” Shibata said. “The industry growth has been pretty impressive over the past four or five years … It will still be the asset. That [Olympic] preparation was pretty much over, so it only gets better towards next year.”

Katharine Fok, managing director of Abercrombie and Kent’s Asias operations, agrees. Fok said she’s watched the Japanese government’s commitment to tourism grow over the past several decades, and the geopolitical shifts in Asia could position Tokyo to become a more globally-focused hub. Over the last few years, Abercrombie and Kent reports its revenues for Japan-based trips has roughly doubled year on year.

“Twenty or 30 years ago the Japanese people were perceived as conservative and keeping to themselves … the government is opening up to foreigners more. I think they realize that the language is a huge problem,” Fok said. Taking the pandemic out of the equation briefly, Fok said Abercrombie & Kent is “positive [about Japan’s future] based on what’s happened in the last two or three years. There’s no negative feeling from all angles … there are more and more [people] saying that Japan wants to take the the place of Hong Kong as a financial hub.”

The extent to which the Japanese government is committed to — and now reliant on — tourism is typified by its controversial domestic tourism subsidy launched this month. The $16 million “Go To” campaign is meant to keep the tourism-reliant economies afloat by providing generous incentives to Japanese people to travel. However a surge in cases means that public sentiment is not aligned with the initiative, and travel to and from Tokyo was left out of the scheme.

Hope Lights the Way

One way the Olympics postponement or cancellation might hurt is in Japan’s effort to diversify its visitorship. In 2019, 70 percent of Japan’s 31.8 million visitors came from east Asia. Keiko Matsuura of the JNTO said that the government and tourism officials were expecting the Games to attract a more globally diverse composition of travelers, though they did not specify a numerical composition. However, she noted that the cancellation of the Games will not change JNTO’s tourism promotion strategy overall.

“We of course expected a lot of people would visit for the Games, but our overall effort has always been: come to Japan, this is a year round destination, and there’s always a lot of things to do whenever you come,” Matsuura said. “For the past few years we’ve been focusing on off-season travel and off the beaten path destinations in Japan because overtourism was kind of happening in Japan as well, so we had to disperse visitors both in terms of time and in terms of where they go. [We were] encouraging them to visit beyond Tokyo beyond Kyoto encouraging them to visit in the fall the winter.”

This strategy will be broadly picked up when international travel is allowed again. she added. In the meantime, JNTO is focusing on providing travel inspiration with its Hope Lights the Way virtual campaign. Once domestic travel is more safe but before international travel is, they will begin promoting health and safety related guidance.

Shibata said he sees another way the pandemic might intersect with Olympic preparations to future-proof Japanese tourism for a post-Covid market. Like many destinations, Japan would like to see tourists book longer, higher-spending stays, rather than rely on a volume-based model in heavily impacted areas that can worsen overtourism. There was a years-long push to grow Airbnb’s presence in the country ahead of the Tokyo games, one he thinks may be well-served to cater to changing traveler tastes after the pandemic

“Here in Japan we started seeing the growth of the usage of the Airbnb and private accommodations and then people can actually stay longer,” Shibata said, contrasting this to the traditional guest house style of accommodation, known as a ryokan. “A ryokan is a great asset for tourism Japan but it’s not the perfect type of accommodation for people who stay long. You’re basically expected to have all your meals there.”

He posited that guests who want to have more control over their trip and environment after Covid-19 are more likely to be drawn to these longer-term accommodation options, rather than a more traditional (and expensive) choice.

‘Obsessed With Cleanliness’

Whether or not the Games go forward, there is no doubt that the pandemic will have an impact on Japan’s tourism industry — as it will every destination. The Games themselves, on the other hand, have a mixed record when it comes to their lasting effect on a host nation’s tourism industry. However when international tourism is once again allowed, there is a chance that Japan may benefit from its previously established reputation.

“Japanese people are obsessed with cleanliness. In wintertime everyone wears masks to avoid getting cold and flu,” JNTO’s Matsuura said. “Everyday life and the standard of sanitation is very high compared to other countries, so hopefully that perception will play a role in people’s minds when they think of traveling again and picking a destination once travel is allowed”

Shibata agrees this, as well as Japan’s overall handling of the virus relative to other countries, gives Japan a leg up. To date, Japan has seen just over 26,000 cases according to Johns Hopkins data, with 988 deaths. “It will definitely help,” Shibata said. “The lower number of cases and high hygiene standards — those things will definitely help a lot to attract more tourists from western countries.”

Japan “is a much better position than China to come back because China has a lot of pushback from the west, while Japan has a lot of goodwill,” said Gerald Hatherly, executive director of Abercrombie and Kent who is also based in Hong Kong.

He added that a culture built on “a willingness to cooperate and on clean hygiene” may also make Japan a regional frontrunner in the recovery.

“We have been doing a lot of Zoom calls with agents and even though they admit that Asia is handled this better and is coming out of this better,” Hatherly said, “[they] are saying they are not getting a lot of enquiries for Asia beyond Japan.”

Matsuura also spoke of a broader spirit in Japan, a country that is no stranger to natural and manmade disasters.

“Japan has a history so to speak of being resilient mostly from natural disasters, the most recent one being the [Fukushima disaster] in 2011. … We’ve always been able to come back from it,” Matsuura said. “So being a resilient country we have the ability and the mindset to bounce back and tourism is a huge industry.”

This article previously said the rescheduled Olympics would place in June next year. The new Games will in fact be in July 2021. 

Photo Credit: The 'One Year to Go' ceremony celebrating what was supposed to be one year out from the start of the summer games in 2019. Issei Kato / Reuters