Even though restrictions have been lifted, Japanese tourists seem more interested in traveling at home than abroad. This is a problem for the U.S. travel industry.
Brand USA is hosting its first sales mission in Japan since the country opened to travel in October. The mission this month comes as Japan — a top U.S. tourist market — has been slow to rebound to its 2019 level.
Brand USA is the U.S.’s destination marketing organization and is responsible for promoting international inbound travel into the country.
The representatives will also go to South Korea and include 35 U.S. partners, including Visit California, Destination DC, Hudson Yards, and Hilton Worldwide will be on the trip. “We are bringing a ton of U.S. businesses with us,” said Brand USA senior vice president of integrated marketing Staci Mellman.
Prior to the pandemic, Japan was the U.S.’s fourth-largest tourism market, with 3.8 million visitors. In March, the U.S. welcomed around 112,000 Japanese travelers, down from 342,000 in March 2019, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office.
This year, the U.S. is expected to host just 1.5 million Japanese travelers, which is less than 40% of its 2019 volume. It won’t reach even 90% of the 2019 level until 2027, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office.
The slow return of tourism from Japan and other Asian markets is one of the reasons why Western U.S. destinations like San Francisco have been slower to recover than Eastern U.S. destinations like New York City, said Peter van Berkel, chairman of the International Inbound Travel Association and president of Travalco.
In March, California’s tourism industry executives joined their state government’s delegation of private sector leaders on a trip to Japan. The delegation discussed a range of business objectives, though included an agreement to promote inbound tourism.
The Japanese aren’t traveling abroad as much as they used to in general. In May, around 675,000 Japanese traveled abroad — half of May 2019’s volume. “Whether it’s going to the U.S. or all over the world, they’re not really traveling,” said Tour America CEO Gloria Lan. She said a large part of it is due to Japan’s Generation Z not being as interested in international travel as prior generations.
Japanese travelers have traditionally been more risk-averse and cautious than other segments. About 30% of Japanese travelers said they were less likely to travel into the U.S. after its vaccine requirement for international travelers was removed, according to a May Brand USA traveler survey.
“They are a lot more cautious,” said David Huang, president and owner of Canyon Coach Lines and National Park Express. “If the driver is not masked, then they don’t want to get on the bus.”
Another factor limiting international travel by Japanese tourists has been government incentives for domestic travel, said Huang. For example, the government has been offering subsidies in the form of discounts on transportation and lodging spending, which it will continue through the summer.
In May, the Japan Association of Travel Agents and the Japanese Tourism Authority announced plans to promote outbound travel again to 24 destinations, one of which is the U.S.