Retail in Asia

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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Hitotoki Travel about tourism in Japan


Olympics in Japan were canceled due to the pandemic, and the country has just confirmed the dates for 2021, that let us hope that the country will re-open the borders to welcome visitors. At the same time, tourism is deeply interconnected with retail sales that in 2020 could only rely on domestic consumption.

SEE ALSO : New dates announced for Tokyo 2020 Olympics

In terms of travel, many countries in the world promoted the idea of local tourism, some with more success than others for different reasons. Japan has definitely a lot of hidden gems that also Japanese people who spent all their life in Japan may not have visited yet, and this year they found time and incentives.

Retail in Asia had the pleasure to interview Alex Debs, founder of Hitotoki, a luxury travel agency, about the travel industry in Japan.

Source: Hitotoki

RiA: What’s the concept behind Hitotoki travel?

Alex: Hitotoki is a boutique travel agency arranging luxury tailor-made holidays in Japan for international high-end clients.

Our brand name Hitotoki means “once in a lifetime” and reflects our wish to design the ideal turnkey dream trip crafted for each of our guests thanks to our extensive network of one-of-a-kind accommodations and unique high-end experience partners across the country.

We also believe that beyond the experiences, it is the people that you meet along the way that will make your trip memorable. From the farmer at a bucolic tea field down Mount Fuji to the local monk at an off-limits private visit of a UNESCO temple on a brisk morning, our Hitotoki signature trips are exclusive authentic encounters for an unforgettable holiday.

Our concept lying between a travel agency and a concierge service has attracted a large range of international high profiles willing to discover Japan in the best conditions, including H.E. the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, foreign delegations and HNWI individuals.

HITOTOKI - Alex Debs and Mrs. Hagerty, Spouse of US Ambassador to Japan (2019)
Source: Hitotoki

RiA: What does it mean luxury travel in Japan across the different customer profiles and cultures?

Alex: Through the years, we have noticed very different patterns depending on our clients origins and background.

American clients prefer to get an overview of the main highlights of Japan while keeping western comfort along the way. On the contrary, European guests love to spend more time in the countryside and stay at ryokans, the Japanese traditional inns. Middle-Eastern clients have a strong appetite for brand hotels and in-the-known restaurants. Finally, Asian guests tend to be repeaters due to their geographical proximity to Japan. As a second or third trip to Japan, they will explore regions initially targeting the domestic market only.

RiA: In terms of inbound tourism, what are the figures related to country of provenance?

Alex: Japan inbound tourism has been booming in the past decade. From a mere 8 millions visitors in 2012 with a set target of 20 millions visitors by 2020, there were already over 35 millions visitors in 2019. While this year crisis has crushed all expectations, Japan has shown a capacity to bounce back quickly in the past with the Great Tohoku earthquake in 2011. Despite the exponential inbound tourism growth, visitors countries of provenance have been quite the same over the years.

In 2019, over 80% of visitors were from Asia, including 30% from Mainland China, 17% from Korea, 15% from Taiwan and 7% from Hong Kong. The United States and Europe represent a small 5% of visitors each. Although Japan Tourism Bureau statistics don’t differentiate business travellers from visitors – all arriving under a same immigration category – this clearly defines the profile of travellers in the country.

RiA: Talking about Chinese travelers, how does their itinerary look like?

Alex: There were 10 millions Chinese travellers to Japan in 2019. An important part of them traveled through group tours with numerous short city stops. Among all visitors to Japan, Chinese are the one spending the most: over 2,200 USD per capita. They are also the one allocating the most on shopping, dedicating it over 50% of their trip budget. In comparison, European or American visitors would share their budget more equally between accommodation, transport, food and shopping.

RiA: How they travel preferences have changed and what type of patterns can you share about them?

Alex: Since the borders are still closed for tourism, it is difficult to see a new pattern emerging yet. It is now obvious that all countries will not re-open simultaneously but many Asian countries seem one step closer to re-start regional travel and the current crisis betokens a growing demand for personalised FIT and small-group tours over large groups from now on.

Omote-Sando Avenue - The Champs-Elysees of Tokyo
Source: Hitotoki

RiA: We have seen that Japan is re-launching the Olympics for next year. How was the response for 2020, and how is it going to change?

Alex: Japan closed its borders at the end of March 2020, cancelling all plans for the 2020 Olympics. During the following months, Japan had one the most strict borders policy as even legal foreign residents got stuck abroad and were not allowed to re-enter the country. From last September, Japan started releasing its policy and gradually resumed travel permission for foreign residents and issue new work and study visas while implementing a two-weeks self-quarantine for everyone arriving from overseas.

Conscious of the impact of self-quarantine for the economy restart, the government is now working on a new returnees’ tracking app to allow people to go on with their lives after arriving from overseas. While the Government mentioned about re-opening its borders for tourism in Spring 2021, nothing has been acted yet and all eyes are turned towards the July 2021 postponed Olympics.

RiA: In these months, we have seen the Japanese market remaining quite resilient. How is the travel industry coping with the crisis and what governmental measures in place are keeping the economy afloat?

Alex: Back in February 2020, Japan was the first country outside China to be under the spotlight with the Diamond Princess cruise COVID-19 breakout. This was just before the cherry blossom peak travel season and a huge challenge for all of us in the industry. I believe hospitality was by far the most quickly and severely hit industry.

Among other general subsidies and state guaranteed loans, the Japanese Government has launched the “Go To Travel” campaign offering a subsidy equivalent to up to 50% of travel costs for domestic travellers through hotel discounts and retail coupons to be used at local shops.

Yet, inbound travel related companies cannot take advantage of this program and had to adapt as international borders are not re-opening yet. At Hitotoki, we were the first company to launch a self-quarantine package for new residents and returnees to Japan that allow people to enter the country hassle-free as we follow the Ministry of Health regularly changing rules.

Besides, the inbound industry has become more self-aware in this difficult time and this year marked the launch of the Hospitality Industry Club of Japan. The club aims to empower small and medium inbound travel related businesses through networking and to improve visibility of all local actors of the hospitality industry, from local ryokans to retail stores.

Shibuya crossing, Tokyo
Source: Hitotoki

RiA: Among Japanese travelers within the country, what are the favourite itineraries?

Alex: Japanese are (quite accurately) known for not taking much holidays. A senior employee will get a maximum of 20 paid holidays per year with no sick leaves. Also, it is culturally expected that employees should not take more than half of their paid holidays to limit the burden on their colleagues. This obviously impacts the way the population travel. Most of them will take advantage of the national holidays through the year to go on a short trip across the country.

Okinawa, the Japanese Hawaii, is always a hit in summer while Hokkaido attracts a lot of visitors in winter, despite being an all-year destination for nature lovers. And of course, Tokyo together with the Kansai region (Kyoto and Osaka) remain on top of the list for Japanese travellers.

What surprised me though is how much Japanese also love onsen resorts and extensively travel to nearby prefectures for a short break at a full board property for a day or two. To do so, most Japanese will use packages to book their transportation and accommodation at discounted rates since retail train tickets prices do not vary through the year and remain more expensive if bought separately.

RiA: Being our platform destined to retail enthusiasts, how does travel industry intersects with retail?

Alex: While many countries went into lockdown, companies across the world have tried to adapt and offer the best experience possible in a safe, yet appealing virtual environment.

New concepts popped up everywhere. In Japan, you are now one payment away to join an online tea ceremony at a local machiya in Kyoto or hop into a live streamed tour of Tokyo by night with a local guide. Still, traditional retail will always remain a magnet for tourism. In Japan in particular, each prefectures have their mascots, food specialties and their very own crafts and shops.

SEE ALSO : EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong

Focusing on luxury bespoke holidays at Hitotoki, I do strongly believe that an increased cooperation between the retail and the travel industry through collaboration can only be beneficial for both sides as it will attract clients back while offering one thing online shopping cannot buy: a story behind a purchase and ultimately, travel memories.