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Road to Tokyo 2020: Bus, railway firms aiming to attract foreign tourists to local areas

April 15, 2019

Tokyo--Japanese bus and railway operators are gearing up to attract foreign travelers to local areas in the country by improving services connecting major airports and railway stations to less accessible tourist destinations.

The move comes as the Japanese government aims to boost the annual number of visitors to the country to 40 million in 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics and Paralympics. The number topped 30 million last year.

Luring foreign travelers to local areas, where they can enjoy distinctive cultures and customs, is the key to achieving the goal.

Northern Iwate Transportation Inc., based in the city of Morioka in Iwate Prefecture, runs a bus service connecting airports and popular tourist destinations in the northeastern Tohoku region.

The service, attended by a guide, brings tourists to Hiraizumi, one of the country's UNESCO World Heritage sites, and a hot spring resort in Hanamaki, as well as Matsushima in neighboring Miyagi Prefecture, which gives scenic coastal views.

"For individuals, trips to the 'golden route' in Tohoku are impossible without convenient transportation services," Mitsuaki Hirasawa, an executive officer at Northern Iwate Transportation, said, referring to the region's popular tourist attraction that includes Matsushima.

The merits of using buses include having separate storage space where travelers can put their luggage, he said.

An audio guide in five languages, including English, Chinese and Korean, is available in the bus service.

The number of foreign tourists accounts for about 10 pct of the total customers, but the figure has been rising in recent years. Of the total foreign customers, those from Taiwan, which is connected to Sendai airport in Miyagi with many flights, account for some 70 pct.

A Taiwanese man in his 20s, who used the bus service, said it is very useful because there is no need to transfer and it gets to destinations faster and more cheaply than trains.

Kyoto Tango Railway, which operates between the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture, western Japan, and neighboring Hyogo Prefecture, sells special train tickets that can also be used for local buses, in a bid to help travelers smoothly visit tourist spots alongside its rail lines.

Bus and railway operators need to advertise their services more to accept foreign guests.

Hirasawa, the Northern Iwate Transportation executive, pointed to the need to have foreign travelers learn about the company's bus services before they enter Japan.

The firm currently allows travelers to purchase tickets for its buses while on flights operated by partner airlines, while making efforts to promote its services in collaboration with the Miyagi prefectural government and others.

"To attract foreign visitors to local areas, efforts by transportation operations alone are not enough," said a public relations official at Willer Inc., the parent of Kyoto Tango Railway.

"Community-wide efforts, including offering multilingual tourist information services and securing accommodation, are important to make local areas more attractive," the official said.

The Japan Tourism Agency said it is important for municipalities and local tourism agencies to collaborate with transportation operators to work on ways of making tourist destinations more attractive and enhancing transportation convenience at the same time.

"Improving transportation is fundamental to luring foreign travelers to visit local areas," a Japan Tourism Agency official said. Jiji Press