I was supposed to start 2022 with a trip to Tokyo and maybe combine that with a ski trip to Hokkaido, but hey, you all know what happened: a certain Greek visitor named omicron came over and overturned the cart from travel for everyone. And again, it seemed like we were all riding in the same smelly boat.
Thus, instead of being in Tokyo to physically host the ninth edition of the WiT Japan and North Asia event, I was stuck behind closed doors, in my living room, watching and listening from afar to everything that had happened in one of the most diverse and dynamic tourist regions in the world over the past two years.
Here we have China, which in 2019 sent nearly 155 million outbound tourists and received 145 million inbound tourists; Japan, which welcomed 32 million inbound visitors and sent 20 million Japanese abroad in the same year; and South Korea, an outbound powerhouse that produced more than 28 million outbound trips, making it Asia’s second-largest outbound market in this last full year before the pandemic hit us all. .
Entering the third year of the pandemic, with omicron still in circulation, the region’s borders remain closed with no word on when inter-regional travel will be able to resume.
That’s why we thought it was fitting to open our event with a performance by samurai warrior/performer Katsumi Sakakura, who conceptualized his new dance to “dispel the plague”.
“What I’ve felt traveling both domestically and internationally is the importance of going there for real, not virtual. If we go real, we can eat food really delicious in this place! The world started moving. I feel that,” Sakakura told me.
Minimalist in style, fluid in movement and dynamic in parts, I felt the dance embraced the qualities we need to embrace to get through this third year of the pandemic: staying lean, staying nimble and nimble and, at the right time, darken .
Well, the travel industry in Japan is definitely going for it. Evoking the Japanese saying, kiko no ikioi – “no choice but to continue” – travel agencies in North Asia have done just that, giants like the Japan Travel Bureau, which had to sell its headquarters in Tokyo as well as one in Osaka for financial liquidity, to entrepreneurs who have been busy building businesses to respond to Covid-induced opportunities and local communities to create experiences for domestic travellers.
From Japan to South Korea to Taiwan, speakers shared stories of regional revitalization from remote places that had been largely forgotten when the world looked outward.
In Japan, Stay in Otera transforms abandoned temples into wellness retreats. Mai Saito, the company’s founder, said that out of a total of 77,000 temples, 30% (20,000) are expected to disappear within the next 30 years. “What a waste,” she said, and so she began her quest to convert temples and shrines into “the place where you discover yourself, the experience where you change your life.”
Rina Nagaoka created Otetsutabi to connect volunteers to local businesses and communities where volunteers are paid. This has opened up a whole plethora of local activities, from helping out in elementary schools to cleaning up plastic to cutting wood, as well as closer connections between travelers and the local community.
Kou Sundberg, founder of Kirakualso works nazuna, which converts traditional Japanese houses into luxury accommodations. A former investment analyst, he wants to start a new trend in sake tourism in Japan. His company renovated a sake brewery in Narai-juku, and apparently they export most of their sake to Singapore. If wine tourism works so well elsewhere, why not sake tourism in Japan, he asked.
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In Taiwan, a place-making movement has emerged among local places that in the past were not often visited by Taiwanese, but are now becoming popular with domestic travelers. The Placemaking Alliance, which currently has 100 members, is led by Gina Tsai, who said it was created to tackle tourism congestion, which has become quite acute during the pandemic.
She cited an example from Taitung, where the government worked with local incubators to create places and distributed products and services through travel agencies and digital platforms.
Lion Travel Group, Taiwan’s first listed travel agency with annual revenue of $1 billion before Covid, has looked to the domestic market and invested in destination experiences by cooperating with government entities such as Taiwan Railway to convert railway stations into tourist areas. “Our goal is to serve FIT businesses in domestic travel, which represents 95% of the addressable market, and this prepares us for the inbound future,” said Ryan Shen, chief investment officer.
Many companies have sprung up to address the blurring of lines between living, working and playing.
PerkUp, which runs co-workation.com, transforms abandoned schools, campsites, cabins and unused hotel grounds into places for events, retreats and corporate experiences. Isa Saito, co-founder and COO, estimates the Japanese labor market at 3.34 trillion yen (about $29 billion).
PerkUp, which runs co-workation.com, transforms abandoned schools, campsites, cabins and unused hotel grounds into places for events, retreats and corporate experiences. Above is a if its properties. Photo credit: Co-workation.com
Takeshi Sabetto, secretary of the Sharing Economy Association and labor adviser to the Japan Tourism Agency, launched ADDress, a multi-location sharing service, to allow Japanese travelers to stay wherever they want. It currently has 200 ADDress homes, with each property being managed by a Yamori, a caretaker.
Sabretto said the pandemic has created new aspirations among Japanese people. They want to live anywhere, anytime, he said, in urban and rural areas, and be able to work remotely. “They want to smell the air of nature and interact with the people who live in the area,” Sabretto said. Currently, its users are 65% male and 35% female, with singles making up about 60% of the community.
With vacant homes in Japan expected to reach nearly 22 million by 2033, Sabetto said there was a huge opportunity to address four sectors: works, second homes, weekend homes and ” looking for a place to migrate”.
This shift in work culture is particularly profound in a place like Japan, with its strong work culture traditions. The liquidation of the Japan Travel Bureau’s fixed assets, although carried out out of financial consideration, gives the organization an impetus to introduce “flexibility, remote working, working from home”, said JTB President Eijiro Yamakita.
Another big trend is environmental social governance, or ESG for short, which is “exploding in Japan”, according to Kathy Matsui, general partner of the $150 million company. MPower Funds, Japan’s first ESG-focused fund. The former Goldman Sachs executive, known for championing “womenomics”, decided to create the fund with two female founders to help early and mid-stage startups get off to a good start on their journey, with ESG principles embedded from the start.
Matsui said Japan had made good progress in terms of women’s representation in the workforce, rising from 50% in 2014 to 70% in 2019, but “there is a shortage of women in management and leadership”. .
JTB’s Yamakita said the 110-year-old travel company, which currently employs around 20,000 people, is also tackling this issue and has set a target of 30% diversity in leadership, “even if that will take time,” he said.
From the real world to the metaverse, NFTs and all that buzz, you can expect these new tech trends to be closely watched in Japan. It is, after all, the place that inspired William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and “Snow Crash,” the 1992 novel in which Neal Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” with a protagonist named Hiro Protagonist.
It is true that major Japanese OTA brands such as Rakuten, Ikyu and Recruit have called the metaverse one of the trends they are watching in Taiwan, a startup called X-time helps brands grow their business in the metaverse,
Others weren’t so convinced. And it was interesting to note that doubts were expressed by young entrepreneurs such as Takaya Shinozuka, the founder and CEO of new overseas travel start-up Reiwa Travel, which raised $10 million in times of pandemic to create a new way to sell overseas travel packages.
Shinozuka and Eric Gnock Fah, the 30-year-old co-founder of Klook unicorn tours and activities, felt that at the moment, given the inability to travel for two years, travelers would be more interested in physical travel than being in. a virtual world.
“We’ve been at it for so long, and people are missing the physical connections of travel,” Gnock Fah said.
So let me end with a quote shared by Yamakita from JTB, “Yuki ni taete baika uruwashi“; translated, “Withstanding the snow, then the plum blossom is beautiful.”
Here are beautiful plum blossoms in 2022.
Yeoh Siew Hoon, Editorial Director of Northstar Travel Media Asia, is the founder and publisher of Web in Travel, a content and community platform for online travel professionals in the Asia-Pacific region.