Sustainable Tourism in Japan - innovation & inspiration

Digital Marketing as a Key Aspect of Destination Appeal

In terms of destination marketing, online access to information has arguably become more important than any other advertising investments. The following is a summary and discussion of the Tourism Expo Japan symposium on the importance of Digital Marketing to the Inbound Market, from the particular view of rural tourist destinations in Japan.

Mr.Naoki Tani, of DoCoMo telecommunications, gave the keynote speech about AI innovation and data collection information which can be used to improve tourism products and services in Japan. This was followed by a panel discussion highlighting the need for effective online content as 80% of inbound travelers plan their trip online before arriving. A few of the panelists gave data and examples comparing the rural destinations of Takayama hot-springs and Gero-hot-springs which are both in Gifu. The length of stay and amount of spending in each place was detailed to illustrate the needs of digital marketing in rural destinations.

Gero-onsen town has an impressive 30-year history of collecting tourism data and has been able to track trends over time. Expedia Lodging DCO Noriyasu Taniguchi and Tomoe Makino of TripAdvisor pointed out the competitive advantage Takayama has over Gero in attracting longer-staying tourists from outside Asia. Gero-onsen prices are a little higher than rival towns and receive a lot of short-stay inbound tourists from Asia (namely Taiwan). Takayama, on the other hand, has comparatively lower prices and receives longer stays from more inbound-tourists from outside Asia who end up spending more.

Actually, I believe there is likely more behind the successes of these two rural destination examples. Like Niseko in Hokkaido, Hida-Takayama has a highly ranked official destination page showing it has been hard at work in recent years establishing better positioning online in English. The website has a good design and user-friendly interface in multiple languages. Website design and usability certainly makes destinations more accessible and appealing to inbound tourists. Gero-onsen’s official destination website is harder to find due to its lower google listing among other factors.

A Google search of the two destinations in English reveals a huge distinction in online presence: Gero-onsen receives only 193,000 listings while Hida-Takayama receives 586,000 listings. If destinations want to improve their online positioning, hiring quality writers who are familiar with Japanese tourism products, as well as local Japanese culture is the best practice.

Unfortunately, content writing is not given priority in destination marketing in Japan and quick ‘translations’ are done by Japanese staff, student volunteers or poorly paid English speaking staff who lack experience or awareness in writing good tourism industry content. As mentioned in the digital marketing symposium by Mr.Makino of TripAdvisor, the purpose of travel is different for the inbound vs domestic markets. While Japanese travelers are motivated to seek out destinations for food and famous sights, inbound visitors are seeking meaningful experiences and nature-based activities. Therefore straight translations of Japanese text misses the target market even if written well.

Good quality travel writers are here in Japan who can help create appeal for destinations, but can only be hired if they are paid what they are worth and allowed to write user-centric content that is not directly translated from the Japanese version. There are many highly qualified long-term, international residents in Japan who are the best choice to promote a destination in English effectively on social media and digital marketing networks. There may be others, but if you need a resource to hire writers for the digital promotion of destinations to the inbound market, JarmanInternational and JizoHat are two companies that provide high-quality services. Companies and DMO’s in rural destinations especially need to start investing in higher quality content if they want to compete with established destinations along the golden route.

The above comparison of online differences between two similar onsen-attraction towns can be generalized to many rural destinations which attract visitors with nature-based tourism and natural assets. Transitioning to appeal to the inbound market for traditional tourist destinations, with traditional tourism models in place, may be more difficult than for destinations building tourism appeal from scratch. Gero-onsen, has a long history of catering to the domestic market and likely many entrenched old-fashioned tourism promotion practices. This was further illustrated when I visited the booths for Gero-onsen and Takayama-onsen I was told there were no materials in English available for Gero, but Takayama had good English materials and staff who spoke English well. This marketing session was an interesting reflection of where Japan is at this point in time, as well as where it should be heading.

Further reading:
* Luxury Tourism Marketing issues – a summary and review of the Luxury Market Symposium from the Tourism Expo Japan 2018 Tokyo meetings.

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