Travel daily catches up with Tomohiro Muraki, director of the Setouchi Tourism Authority.
What is your role and how long have you held it?
Since 2013, I have led the establishment of Setouchi Tourism Authority, which had never before been marketed as a region. The region encompasses seven prefectures which border Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.
From 2016 once operations were in place, my role developed as strategy officer of Setouchi Tourism Authority, in which I oversee inbound marketing and promotions.
In October 2017, the tourism board began operations on an international level, promoting the region to the UK market.
How have UK visitor statistics compared this year with last?
Each year there is an average increase of 13% of UK visitors to the region, this is in line with the growth of UK tourism to Japan (10 – 15% annual growth), which welcomed 300,000 UK visitors last year.
As the region continues to develop relationships with the UK travel trade, whilst also looking forward to welcoming visitors to Kobe as a host city in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the destination is poised to see a further increase in UK travellers in the next few years.
Has the tourist office launched any new campaigns?
This month we are launching Setouchi Tourism Authority’s first ever multi-language consumer website, setouchitrip.com, which offers itinerary inspiration and a travel directory of recommended local attractions and activities, as well as a dedicated travel trade area with a wealth of information for tour operators and agents.
As the website evolves, the authority will support operators offering Setouchi product, with an online listing.
We see a huge potential in the UK market, particularly with sports tourism around the 2019 World Rugby Cup and 2020 Olympics ahead of us. With Kobe as a Rugby World Cup host city which is confirmed for England, Scotland and Ireland fixtures, Setouchi Tourism Authority will encourage visitors to take in the culture and history of the ‘real Japan’ between matches, by exploring the wider Seto Inland Sea region. 400,000 international visitors are expected to travel to the first Rugby World Cup to be held in Asia.
The authority has also launched a sustainability programme in which 100 traditional Japanese houses will be transformed into accommodation by 2020, enabling visitors to live like a local. The rise in empty traditional houses has resulted from an ageing population, which has provided the opportunity to preserve beautifully crafted buildings for travellers to immerse themselves in, rather than building new hotel product.
What specifically is the tourist office aiming to highlight/promote to UK visitors?
The diversity of experiences offered in the Setouchi region is a unique proposition, allowing travellers to experience the ‘real Japan’ and catering for a range of budgets.
The region is fundamental in Japan’s history, having the first ports to open the country to international trade, and this welcoming approach remains today. In addition, Setouchi has the longest suspension bridge in the world, the oldest of Japan’s natural hot springs, one of the oldest Japanese castles and accounts for most of Japan’s sake exports.
75% of operators that currently list Japan feature Setouchi, with Hiroshima as the most popular prefecture in the region. Setouchi Tourism Authority aims to highlight the ease of travelling between prefectures and expanding itineraries by a few days to take in further experiences.
There is something for all UK travellers. The region has a vibrant art scene spread across 12 art islands; myriad adventures, including a 60km cycle route spanning six islands and nine bridges; a plethora of temples to explore and is a foodie haven, home to Udon noodles, Kobe beef, Hiroshima Oysters and 275 Sake breweries.
Have you noticed any emerging trends with Brits?
We find that British travellers to Japan are educated travellers who want to experience different cultures. The Setouchi region is perfect for those wishing to search for authenticity, immersing themselves into local cultures and learning about a destination’s history.
Setouchi is well placed for multi-centre visits to Japan, located to the west of Kyoto and offering city experiences, UNESCO Heritage Sites and island adventures.
The average length of stay for UK visitors to Japan is 12 days, with Hiroshima often included on itineraries and the wider Setouchi region increasingly being incorporated.
The annual Long Haul Holiday Report from Post Office Travel Money named Japan as one of the top ten best value holiday hotspots for 2017. According to the report, Japan’s appeal has increased dramatically as the yen has fallen in value against the pound by 24.7% over the past five years. Consequently, prices for commodities such as meals and drinks have dropped sharply, turning a country once regarded as a luxury destination for the few into a now affordable option for many. This has opened the region to budget travellers and backpackers who want to get out of Europe or visit a new continent and go beyond the tourist trail.
Any news on new hotel developments or new operators to the destination? Airlines?
Launched in October 2017, Guntu is a floating hotel built on Japan’s Setouchi Inland Sea, which allows guests to explore different islands within the region, without having to step far from their hotel room. The luxury boat has 19 guest rooms, a lounge, gym and sushi counter, serving freshly-caught seafood which is delivered directly by local fishermen.
As part of Setouchi Tourism Authority’s drive to restore traditional houses, Kominka ORI, which is 100 years old, opened at the end of 2017. The renovated house has retained its original Meiji period features and is situated in the nationally designated Yokaichi Gokoku Preservation District of the historic town of Uchiki, Ehime.
More developments are in the pipeline as the region braces itself for increased visitation with the Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics.
Many airlines are currently offering extremely reasonably priced flights to from the UK to Tokyo. Prices for indirect flights with KLM/Air France currently start at £439, while BA is offering indirect flights from £516, and Japan’s top carriers JAL from £517 and ANA from £554.
What’s your advice to travel agents on selling the destination?
The Setouchi region is easy to reach by bullet train from a number of major tourist destinations, such as Kyoto linking to Himeji Castle (under two hours) and Kobe (30 mins), as well as to Hiroshima. I would advise taking at least three days to explore Setouchi, including both the mainland and Shikoku Island in the same itinerary.
Island hopping by bike is a great experience for the more active traveller, but this can easily be done by boat, too. With over 3,000 islands in the region, Setouchi offers incredible scenery, hard to find elsewhere in the world.
I’d advise travel agents that for clients seeking an authentic cultural experience, Setouchi should always be considered. Activities they can get involved in include an indigo dying experience, cooking their own dinner with locals and even creating their own Japanese short knife in Osafune to take home with them. I’d also encourage spending at least one night in a traditional Japanese Kominka or Ryokan to really ‘live’ the destination.
International visitors can fly with domestic airlines for less than £100 almost everywhere within Japan, so we would encourage looking into connecting international flights with Setouchi’s regional airports, as well as close-by Osaka. Purchasing a Japan railpass is also a wise idea to minimise the cost of transportation, with the rail system being well connected.
For clients looking to gain a range of experiences and scenery in Japan, an ideal itinerary would incorporate Tokyo, Kyoto and the Setouchi Region, then flying to the northern part of Japan called the Tohoku Region. From Setouchi’s Hiroshima airport to Tohoku Gateway city Sendai in Miyagi prefecture, a domestic flight will take 85 minutes. This way, visitors can experience a wide cross-section of Japan, including major touristic destination and off the beaten path within two weeks.
What training/incentives are you offering travel agents?
As a new destination marketing organisation, Setouchi Tourism Authority has invested in international representation and is focusing on expanding its product in its first year in market. This will include educating product managers and travel agents about the region through fam trips, dedicated training sessions and roadshows. The knowledge of agents is key in promoting the destination, particularly for a region with such a different culture ready to be explored.