Series: Growing Inbound Tourism (Part 7)
Turning “Nothing” into Rural Cool
Guides as the link between travelers and locals
Turning “Nothing” into Rural Cool
Guides as the link between travelers and locals
Satoyama Experience offers guided journeys into the heart of rural life in Gifu Prefecture’s Hida region. What is the secret to satisfying 99 percent of the discerning world traveler’s dreams?
Insights from a long journey
Satoyama Experience offers cycling tours, town and village walks, and other “guided journeys into the heart of rural life” to travelers visiting the Hida region (Takayama and Hida-furukawa) in Gifu Prefecture. When we launched a trial package tour with just three bicycles back in 2009, even the term “inbound tourism” was not well-known. In 2017, however, as we approach our eighth season, approaches to inbound tourism have changed considerably.
The original reason that we came to Hida-furukawa was not to set up this tour business, but because our greatest insight from two years spent wandering the world was that there is a richness that can’t be calculated in terms of monetary value, and we knew intuitively that if that’s what we were after, we would need to go to the countryside.
We also recognized that what leaves the deepest impression from a journey is that connection with the daily lives of local people. Satoyama Experience was born out of our desire to provide to others the same enjoyment which we experienced on our own travels.
In fact, not a single place on our cycling tour could be described as a tourist spot. What we show visitors are fields, traditional houses, markets, springs—things that local people simply take for granted. However, to urban dwellers like us, as well as visitors from overseas, they’re new and fresh, with a richness that can’t be calculated in terms of monetary value. In other words, they’re cool! And from the comments left on Trip Advisor (the world’s biggest online trip community), it’s clear that visitors are really thrilled by their experience of everyday Hida. Of course, the value of that “everyday” only emerges when it is skillfully packaged as a tour and guides connect visitors to local people, experiences, and things.
Attracting international visitors
Having spent a lot of time on the road together with seasoned Western travelers, we knew what they wanted out of a travel experience, which made it easy to design tour content to match their needs. As a result, we targeted these Western travelers right from the outset when Satoyama Experience was still just Hida Satoyama Cycling (“satoyama” being rural communities where people have become part of the natural eco-system over hundreds of years).
Some entrepreneur once said that to build a business, you yourself must be the target audience for its services, and that’s really true. The clearer the target, the clearer it is what services you need to offer.
At the same time, just because you’ve created a website and a pamphlet doesn’t mean that international visitors will automatically start showing up. Up until 2012, most of our guests were Japanese, because it was easier to get information out to them. It was 2013 that we finally started getting more international visitors, and, buoyed also by the subsequent rise in inbound tourism across Japan as a whole, in 2016 just under 80 percent of our 3,300 customers were foreigners.
Trip Advisor has been an invaluable tool in raising our profile among international visitors. Five-star reviews from happy customers turned out to be an important promotional tool. These days, it’s not that hard to get your business toward the top of Internet search results if you’re prepared to pay. Customer reviews take a bit longer because they build up over successive tours as the fruit of each guide’s efforts. These days, many customers are sent to us from overseas travel agencies, and it’s truly that gradual accumulation of positive reviews that has enabled a tiny operation such as Satoyama Experience to stand on an equal footing with these global players. We aim to build a relationship of trust with customers by providing a high-quality service not just from our guides but right from the reservation stage, and as a result of that connection, individual customers too frequently end up recommending us to all their friends.
Nurturing community relations is essential in operating a rural tourism business. As “guided journeys into the heart of daily life,” we are privileged to be able to give visitors a glimpse of local lifestyles, and conversely, we also take great care when both creating and operating our tours that we don’t interfere with those lifestyles. The locals that we run into along our tour routes tell us that it’s like travelling overseas while still in your own backyard, and often give visitors tomatoes from their fields or show them through traditional old houses. We’re so grateful for the way that Hida locals take our tour guests to their hearts. We also do our best to give back to the community, including cleaning the shelters that we use, buying local as much as we can, and providing volunteer labor in maintaining traditional houses. At the same time, we recognize that with so many more visitors arriving these days, we need to redouble our efforts to make sure that locals’ lives are not inconvenienced. This year, as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of our business, we look forward to elevating our local contribution to a new level.
Professional guides vital to tourist industry development
Countries with advanced tourism industries always have professional guides. Because most of these guides deal with international visitors, bilingualism is just the norm. We too met many guides on our travels, and they were proud of their jobs (which often have high social status), genuinely loved their fields, and worked to deliver 150 percent of our expectations as customers. In Japan, however, the guiding profession is still poorly understood, possibly because guides weren’t that necessary in the old style of Japanese tourism.
Guides are extremely skilled personnel. In addition to language, they have to be constantly considering time management, entertainment, risk management, and a host of other factors—they don’t just pass on knowledge. They have to find out what their customers are interested in. They’re often outside on the move all day, so they also need to be physically fit. The seven guides currently on the Satoyama Experience team have very distinctive personalities and come from quite different backgrounds. Only one has guiding experience; the others were teachers, white collar workers, and recent or former university graduates, etc. During training, in addition to the basic training, they’re also constantly working to utilize their own individual talents while also compensating for their weaknesses, to the extent that every time a trainee makes their debut, they leave the trainer blown away by their progress.
The Japanese government will no doubt be considering and instituting a range of measures in the lead up to the Olympics, but with the number of seasoned individual travelers bound to increase in the coming years, professional guides will be vital in meeting the demand for connection with locals.
In recent years we’ve had increasing opportunity to be involved with training and inbound tourism consulting around Japan. At Satoyama Experience, we look forward to producing world-class guides and helping to train high-quality guides in other regions as well to help Japan forge an outstanding tourism industry.
(original article : Japanese)
Established in 2007 with the aim of producing “rural cool.” Launched a full program of guided tours in 2010, rebranding as Satoyama Experience in 2014. Provides a one-stop service from tour bookings through to travel arrangements for travelers visiting the Hida region. Satoyama Experience has developed a reputation through customer reviews as one of the best outdoor activities in Japan, taking out the top eco-tourism award from the Japan Ecotourism Society along with numerous other awards. Also provides tourism-related consulting and human resource development services.
About the Author
Shiho YAMADA, Co-Founder, Chura-boshi Company
Born in Tokyo and completed a master’s degree at the Keio University Graduate School of Media and Governance. Worked at a foreign-affiliated consulting company before setting off in 2004 to travel the world for almost two years. On returning to Japan, set up the Chura-boshi Company and shifted to Hida-furukawa. Currently manages Satoyama Experience. Qualified as a travel operator and a tour guide interpreter.