June 21, 2024

In the diverse world of travel preferences, some opt for backpacking, others for group tours. Then there’s the elite, ready to splurge for the ultimate experience. Last year, Tochigi Prefecture set its sights on this affluent demographic with exclusive luxury tours. Here’s why their expectations were shattered, turning a potentially lucrative venture into a colossal flop.

A rich endeavor

Lake Chuzenji in the autumn. (Picture: gonbe / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

In the Japanese tourism scene, the past two years have been about recovery. March 2024 saw over 3 million foreign visitors, a milestone indicating better times ahead. During this year’s Golden Week, both Japanese and foreign travelers hit the road like never before, signaling a vibrant resurgence in travel activity.

Set against tourism resurgence, Tochigi Prefecture rolled out its first-ever “super luxury tour” last November. Pulling out all the stops, the tour whisked affluent travelers from Tokyo to Okunikko via helicopter, offering an exclusive, picturesque escape with no congestion.

Over 2 nights and 3 days, guests would have indulged in luxury at the Hotel Ritz-Carlton Nikko, the brand’s first property boasting hot springs. But these weren’t just any onsen; they offered stunning vistas of Lake Chuzenji and Mt. Nantai. Since hosting the G7 Ministerial Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in 2023, this hotel, inaugurated in 2020, soared to fame, commanding nationwide attention and premium rates.

Tourists would have embarked on guided adventures exploring the wonders of Okunikko. Then, as dusk fell, they’d delight in Tochigi’s local delicacies during a memorable dinner at the exclusive Embassy Villa Memorial Park of the Italian Embassy on Lake Chuzenji—a tangible cultural property of Japan.

It does sound incredible, doesn’t it? Tochigi had high hopes for it. They expected around 50 participants, with the initial price set at four million yen (USD $25,682) per person.


Inquiries flooded in, but no one sealed the deal. This forced the prefecture to extend the sales deadline from the end of December to the end of January 2024. In a desperate bid to save the project, they slashed the price to 2.9 million yen.

Yet, despite these efforts, no contracts were inked. Ultimately, Tochigi had to pull the plug on the whole venture.

A fresh tourist find

Tochigi Prefecture soared as a hotspot for foreign tourists after the 2023 G7 Ministerial Meeting. While it had its fans before, the event sparked new international interest, revealing its hidden gems to travelers. Despite neighboring prefectures stealing the limelight, Tochigi shines with Japan’s premier hot spring spots, ranking 10th nationwide and 1st in the Kanto region.

But Tochigi isn’t just about hot springs. Nestled in Tokyo’s northern outskirts, it’s a haven of natural wonders, offering a serene escape from urban chaos. In a 2023 survey of inbound tourists, respondents confirmed their attraction to Tochigi’s natural attractions. With 6 out of 10 top destinations being scenic spots, it’s clear that Tochigi’s natural beauty is a major draw for travelers.

Yet Tochigi Prefecture pinned its high hopes on the “Hidden Nikko Area” (Oku Nikko, 奥日光), a tucked-away gem nestled beyond the Iroha Slope in the mountains. Situated at an altitude exceeding 1,200 meters, this region boasts a unique humid continental climate akin to that of Hokkaido and Helsinki in Finland.

Here, amidst pristine and unspoiled nature, the Prefecture concentrated its exclusive luxury plans. From the historic Senjogahara marshland to the iconic Kegon Falls and the picturesque scenery of Mount Nantai, Oku Nikko beckoned affluent tourists to explore a hidden facet of Kanto. It’s a world apart from the bustling urban landscape, yet conveniently close at hand.

Raising the bar

Toshogu, the Shinto shrine featuring Japan’s famous three wise monkeys, is in Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture.

After weathering the COVID-19 storm, Tochigi Prefecture’s recovery appeared to have finally materialized last year. With an estimated 72.6 million visitors, tourism levels bounced back to nearly 80% compared to 2019. Overnight stays by tourists reached 7.244 million, marking an increase of approximately 42.8% from the previous year and reaching 90% of the 2019 level.

Naturally, the recovery didn’t occur overnight. Since lifting COVID-19 restrictions in 2022, Tochigi Prefecture has been pulling out all the stops to lure in tourists. For instance, they hosted social events like the “Strawberry Encounter Tochigi National Athletic Meet” in 2022. However, there was still a sense that they could do more to reach even greater heights.

“Including inbound figures, I still see the numbers falling short of pre-infection levels. To boost tourism, I aim to ramp up information dissemination both domestically and internationally,” Governor Fukuda explained in 2023.

And that’s when the Japan Tourism Agency’s “Tourism Restart Project” took off. With a budget of 15 million yen from the national treasury, this initiative aimed to reinvigorate inbound tourism by financing local governments and private companies. Social events, cultural experiences, and travel packages quickly became the top choices pitched by prefectures nationwide.

This project quickly drew in participants with innovative ideas. Tottori Prefecture, for instance, crafted luxury tourist menus offering top-notch dining experiences, along with exhibitions by international photographers. Wakayama successfully secured subsidies for the Japan Visitor Ticket and the Wakayama Winter Fusion event featuring Tokyo Girls collections.

Against these efforts, Tochigi Prefecture boldly joined the fray with its ambitious project, setting its sights on affluent tourists and their substantial resources.

What went wrong?

By the sound of it, Tochigi Prefecture had thrown its weight behind the project. Yet, not even one contract was signed.

The prevailing belief was that the pricing was the culprit. Starting at 4 million yen per person, the Prefecture initially suspected the package might be too costly. Lowering it to 2.9 million yen was an attempt to entice more interest, but the persistent lack of buyers hinted that pricing might not have been the sole issue at play.

“There was no criticism that it was too expensive. It wasn’t designed for the general public in Japan, and when we simply calculated the helicopter usage fee, etc., it came out to 4 million yen,” remarked the Prefectural Tourism Exchange Division official.

So, why did the plan fall short? Chances are, not enough people were aware of it. Promotion for this tour didn’t begin until mid-October 2023, coinciding with the start of sales. Since the tour was initially planned to start in autumn to showcase the autumn foliage from the helicopter, the delayed promotion likely made it difficult for tourists to consider this package.

Additionally, the Prefecture acknowledges that this fixed package might have been too structured for the intended audience.

“We should have offered more flexibility rather than imposing a rigid schedule. Some expressed a preference for Japanese-style accommodations. Affluent individuals would likely prefer to have the freedom to move around, so perhaps we imposed too rigid of a package on them,” commented the Exchange Division official.

Future lesson learned

The exclusive luxury tours didn’t meet expectations, despite Tochigi pouring considerable energy into planning the ultimate experience. However, recognizing and learning from these mistakes could offer valuable lessons for all prefectures nationwide.

The project was ambitious, but effective promotion could have made all the difference in bringing in the expected revenues. For future success, prioritizing advertising the experience is key, especially for an international audience. Utilizing channels compatible with them is crucial. Among the best methods, leveraging online travel agencies could provide excellent publicity. Additionally, spreading information through social media platforms seems inevitable.

And who knows? Perhaps next time, the project will soar, ushering in a new travel dimension and driving up local revenues.

Want an individualized, guided tour of Japan that won’t break the bank? Contact us at Unseen Japan Tours to craft your personalized itinerary today.


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