Ayumi Takahashi: Director of Japan National Tourism Organization’s Bangkok Office

“Visit Japan”—a slogan used by the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)—is as direct and as simple as the very order that spurred it; increase tourism, improve the economy. It should be of note, however, that simple doesn’t always mean easy.

When the Japanese government recently sought to increase the number of annual travelers visiting the country, it sought to increase to more than triple figures by 2030. This was sparked, according to the Japan Times, by the realization that achieving such a target would increase the spending of foreign visitors to ¥4.7 trillion in 2030—a significant rise from the ¥1.3 trillion spending in 2010 when overseas arrivals amounted to 8.61 million.

According to the report by the Japan Times, the rise in spending is expected to boost jobs related to the tourism industry by a significant amount. Should the target be met, jobs related to the sector are expected to rise all the way to about 830,000 by 2030 from the 250,000 figure in 2010.

The plan seems as promising as it is difficult. To achieve it, Japan will have to thrust some of its best people into the forefront. And for the country’s promotion in the Philippines (as well as Vietnam), one of the prominent figures expected to get the job done is Ayumi Takahashi. Born in the Chiba Prefecture back in 1974, Takahashi graduated from the Kobe University with a degree in Foreign Studies. His career in tourism began after he joined a travel agency and worked there for three years. After joining a government-backed program, Takahashi was then sent to Vietnam to be a college tourism teacher. He would spend another three years in this job before finally landing a spot at JNTO.

Established back in 1964, JNTO is involved in a wide range of activities meant to generate interest in Japan and improve the number of foreign tourists visiting the country. Currently, the group is involved in a number of operations including the management of tourist information centers for foreign visitors, the promotion of international convention centers and trade fairs, the spearheading of research related to tourism and the production of materials that seek spark interest in Japan.

As part of this group, Takahashi was initially sent to the London office, but after some time, he was transferred to the Bangkok branch where he now serves as one of the operation’s key figures.

Last year, Japan unveiled its plan to more than triple foreign visitors by 2030. What are the major strategies currently being implemented by its government in pursuit of this goal?

The Japanese government recognizes that more foreign tourists can contribute to the health of our economy. In line with this, it has taken measures to upgrade existing infrastructures and services. These include accommodations, transportation and wifi. We will improve it step by step as our country nears the Olympic and Paralympic Games which we will be hosting in 2020.

How has Japan evolved as a tourist destination in recent years? Currently, what are the major driving forces of this industry and what are the country’s newest attractions?

We started the “Visit Japan Campaign” in 2003. Since then, we began putting in serious efforts to deal with how to welcome overseas tourists to our beautiful country. More than 10 years have passed since then and now, each Japanese realizes the importance of tourism in the country. That movement was very helpful to create an ideal environment. In line with attractions, I would say that the newest one we have is the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” that just opened on July 15th in Universal Studio Japan. This is the first of its kind in Asia.

A major concern about Japan as a destination is that a visit to the country can be quite costly. What can Japan offer to more frugal tourists?

I personally think that this is a stereotype. Once people visit Japan, they realize that it’s fair because they get good value for their money. In the country there are a number of 100-Yen shops and other discount shops.

Tokyo, of course, is one of the primary tourist destinations in Japan. For most travelers, it is the first city they visit in the country before going to Kyoto and then Osaka and so on. These days, how does it fare at the forefront of the country’s tourism?

Tokyo is an icon of Japan. People know it by name and they know it as the country’s gate city. It is a fusion of both the modern and the traditional. I don’t think that you can find another place like it in the world and that is what fascinates tourists.

What attractions in Tokyo would you personally want first-timers to visit to ensure that their experience in the city would leave a memorable and positive impression?

I recommend a visit to Asakusa where they can experience a typical traditional atmosphere. This area is really attractive. Going beyond the main street and traversing through the smaller passages will allow you to find something very Japanese.

With such high hopes placed on tourism, a huge responsibility obviously falls upon the shoulders of JNTO. What are the most significant strategies currently being implemented by the group in order to make sure that the country achieves its demanding tourism goal?

To take that responsibility, needless to say, we should be professional.

Recently we found that various requests come from a lot of travel agencies and travelers. To solve this, we made sure that our website and social networking services can provide information instantly. These days, we tend to introduce current information through SNS such as Facebook.

Basically, these days, our website operates through 14 different languages, and our Facebook page operates through 8 different languages.

In your website, Japan is dubbed a land of “endless discovery.” On a personal note, what was the most remarkable discovery you’ve found in your own country in recent years?

I am personally very proud of being Japanese especially after I saw how our country recovered from the big earthquake recently. I discovered how strong we really are, like the Filipinos. In addition, it was a remarkable discovery for me to realize how many people from other countries actually supported us during that tumultuous time.

What is your favorite place in Japan and why do you enjoy it so much?

I personally like the Gifu prefecture. This is my wife’s home town. My first visit to the place came after I married her and, since then, I make it a point to visit at least twice a year. In the prefecture, there are many places worth visiting, such as Shirikawago, famous temples, hot springs and so on.

Japan is such a diverse destination with numerous offerings. What advice can you give to anyone who will be visiting the country for the first time in order to ensure that such a visit would be remarkable?

Seeing is believing. Japan is safe. You can go anywhere. Buy a 1-day train ticket and stroll around our cities. Once you experience the Japanese treatment, I’m sure that you can discover the charm of our country and be a fan.