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Series: Growing Inbound Tourism (Part 8) Kinosaki Onsen—One Large Ryokan Using Data to Drive Tourism in Toyooka City Tatsumi Kobayashi Director Department of the Environment and Economy Toyooka City [Date of Issue: 31/July/2017 No.0269-0270-1051]

Date of Issue: 31/July/2017

Series: Growing Inbound Tourism (Part 8)
Kinosaki Onsen—One Large Ryokan
Using Data to Drive Tourism in Toyooka City

Tatsumi Kobayashi
Department of the Environment and Economy
Toyooka City

The number of foreign visitors staying overnight in Toyooka City has grown by a massive 40 times over the last five years. Here we look back at how initiatives to attract foreign tourists grew from being of no local interest to the focus of everyone's interest.

Realizing a “Local & Global City”

Located on the coast of the Sea of Japan in Hyogo Prefecture, Toyooka City is a town of just over 80,000 people. While Toyooka might be small, our aim is to become a “Local & Global City” respected and admired by people around the world—in other words, finding global value in the intrinsically local—and we have been pursuing a number of initiatives to that end.

Toyooka was once a major oriental white stork breeding area. We have been working since 1965 to restore the wild stork population based on the notion that a town where storks can live must also be a good human environment. This project has drawn worldwide attention as the only such case of reviving an endangered species in a human-inhabited area. Our 50-year challenge resulted in the first release of storks into the wild in 2005, and today in 2017, the wild stork population has reached over 100 birds, with the sight of storks hunting for food in paddy fields becoming a real tourist draw.

Storks in a paddy field

Storks in a paddy field

The history of Toyooka's Kinosaki Onsen stretches back more than 1,300 years, when according to legend, storks healing their wounds there led to its discovery. The tiny inns and hot springs preserve the traditional aesthetic of this onsen town. Guests are encouraged to treat the entire town as one large ryokan (Japanese inn), with the station as the entrance, the streets as the hallways, the inns as the rooms, the hot springs as the bath, and the various stores as the ryokan shop. Kinosaki's slice of Japanese onsen culture is also popular among foreigners, becoming such a tourist attraction that the 1,118 overnight guests in 2011 had burgeoned to more than 40,000 in 2016. Here we look back on Toyooka City's efforts to attract inbound tourists.

From its Appearance in an English-language Guidebook

It was 2008 when the Lonely Planet guidebook rated Kinosaki Onsen as Japan's “best onsen town”. While Toyooka City's Tourism Office obviously had high hopes that this would attract more tourists, there was also concern as to whether more foreigners coming to Kinosaki Onsen would detract from the onsen town atmosphere. The number of foreign guests staying overnight at Kinosaki Onsen grew slightly in 2009, but in 2010 stood at only 1,748, the same as back in 2008. The impact of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake then reduced the figure further to 1,118. The anticipated boost from the Lonely Planet mention seemed to have fizzled out.

In 2012, some of the younger generation in Kinosaki Onsen spearheaded a launch of initiatives to attract inbound tourists, boosting the number of overnight stays by foreign visitors to 4,732. In 2013, Toyooka City also ramped up its tourism efforts, establishing a Tourism Division to be responsible for attracting domestic and foreign visitors and putting out information to raise the area's profile. Because we knew little about the Internet or about the tourism industry, we used the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications' regional revitalization businessperson exchange system to have staff dispatched from the online travel agency, Rakuten Travel, to help us develop an international tourism strategy.

In 2014, when the number of foreigners staying overnight in Toyooka topped 10,000 and it became commonplace to see foreigners walking around in yukata (a Japanese light cotton robe), Toyooka locals started to lose their reticence toward foreigners. They made observations such as “stylish foreigners wearing yukata fit in remarkably well with the town's traditional ambience”, and “once they put on their yukata, foreigners are just like local tourists”. As a result, inns and bathhouses started taking special care in showing foreigners how to wear their yukata.

Foreign visitors in yukata strolling around the town's bathhouses

Foreign visitors in yukata strolling around the town's bathhouses

Shifting the Basis of our Tourism Strategy from Instinct and Experience to Data Analysis

One of the features of Kinosaki Onsen is visiting the various bathhouses, with yukata-garbed visitors strolling around the town to sample the different baths. Toyooka City thought that traditional Japanese clothing and onsen culture might also be a drawcard for foreigner visitors.

Now we knew what we wanted to sell, but as we were targeting foreigners for the first time, we could not utilize the intuition and experience that had served us in the past. Instead we turned to various types of data.

First, it was heartening to receive from the town's various accommodation facilities data on the number of nights that foreign tourists were staying by nationality. While our goal was to boost overnight stays as the best way to increase tourism consumption, we needed this basic data on overnight visitors in order to be able to measure the impact of our efforts. Fortunately, the Kinosaki Onsen Inn Cooperative had been recording data since 2004, and we were also able to get reports from other areas of Toyooka as of 2013.

In recent years, a substantial amount of data on inbound tourism has also been released by bodies such as the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). We used these data to explore various conditions, such as which nationalities come to Japan to experience Japanese culture and which nationalities predominantly visit Japan during the spring and autumn off-seasons. As a result, we decided to focus on selling to Europe, America, and Australia.

We also discovered that more than 90 percent of tourists coming to Japan from these countries were making their own reservations, so we upgraded our English website and added an online accommodation reservation function. We backed this with search engine marketing (SEM)*, which boosted website access numbers from 5,405 in May 2016 by around 2.7 times to 14,856 in 2017.

Since 2015, we have been tracking foreign tourist movement with WiFi data for application in measures to increase the length of stays and the number of places visited. We want to identify characteristic movement patterns by visitor nationality—nationalities that only use JR (the Japan Railways), nationalities visiting a comparatively large number of places, nationalities with high ropeway utilization rates, etc.—and use this for nationality-specific marketing.

Nighttime strolls are another Kinosaki Onsen pleasure

Nighttime strolls are another Kinosaki Onsen pleasure

How Well is Kinosaki Onsen Known Overseas?

In 2014, we went to London for our first ever international travel expo—the World Travel Market, which is one of the world's biggest B2B travel shows. Other exhibitors from Japan included Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Okinawa. European visitors probably thought that Toyooka was also a big city, which is quite embarrassing to look back on!

However, exhibiting at the World Travel Market provided us with the opportunity to engage directly with travel agencies and travel magazine journalists from various European countries and get firsthand feedback on our efforts. We subsequently took part in travel expos in France, Thailand, Singapore, and elsewhere, making the following discoveries:

1. Despite appearing in Lonely Planet, Toyooka had almost no presence.

2. No tourists came solely with the purpose of visiting Kinosaki Onsen, so we would need to work with neighboring tourist areas.

3. Tourists have the fixed impression that Japan's most beautiful ocean is in Okinawa, and the most beautiful snow is in Hokkaido or Shinshu.

4. Travel agencies are always interested in package tours and other travel products.

Limits to Administrative Efforts

The most exasperating thing about participating in travel expos and business talks overseas was that as an administrative organization, we had no products to offer. Even if we managed to introduce customers to the area's attractions, we had no accommodation, experiences or tour packages to offer, so we could not attract tourists on that basis. Our solution was to set up Toyooka Tourism Innovation (TTI), a Japanese-style Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) in June 2016.

TTI's primary goal is to boost the region's earning capacity, which naturally includes selling travel products. It is currently spearheading international marketing in conjunction with inns and transport operators, etc., as well as handling accommodation reservations through our foreign-language (English and French) website pages. Sales are favorably increasing as reservations for January to May 2017 are up around three times from last year.

Trend in no. of foreigners staying overnight in Toyooka

Trend in no. of foreigners staying overnight in Toyooka

Thanks to cooperation from the region and TTI, the total number of nights spent by foreign visitors in Toyooka as a whole reached 44,648 in 2016, bringing our goal of 100,000 overnight guests by 2020, from what originally seemed like a dream, to a real possibility. Rice produced through organic farming methods or with reduced agrichemical use—originally promoted to ensure food for our storks—is now fetching a premium as safe “stork-friendly” rice, providing a model for balancing environmental conservation with business activity. Our “stork rice” is exported to America and Hong Kong, and is appearing in a growing number of restaurants with regionally-focused menus, where it has also been warmly welcomed by foreign visitors.

We will continue working toward our goal of 100,000 overnight stays per annum, using data to increase the length of stays and consumption unit price in order to boost the region's tourism consumption.

* A generic term for marketing techniques designed to increase the number of visitors to particular websites through search engines.

Profile of Toyooka City

Around 80 percent of the Toyooka City area is forested. To the north lies the Sea of Japan, and to the east, Kyoto Prefecture, while the main Maruyama River rolls gently through the middle of the city. With the coastal area designated as the San'in Kaigan National Park, and the mountain area designated as Hyonosen Ushiroyama Nagisan Quasi-National Park, Toyooka is blessed with a rich natural environment that vividly reflects the four seasons. In 2005, the first oriental white storks—a government-designated special natural treasure in Japan—were released into the wild as part of a scheme ambitious even by world standards to restore a wild species close to human habitation. Main industries include agriculture, forestry and fishing, as well as tourism. Toyooka is one of Japan's four biggest producers of bags, and is also home to Izushi-yaki, a type of porcelain renowned for its translucent white color.

Related websites

Discover Toyooka (Japanese tourism site)
Visit Kinosaki (English tourism site)
Toyooka City Tourism Pamphlet (pdf) (Japanese) (English)
(For the Japanese version of this article)

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