Juliet Speedy reporting live from Shibuya Crossing for Newshub's 6pm bulletin
Japanese tourists were the life blood of inbound tourism to Aotearoa in the 1980s and 1990s but visitor numbers have been on the decline since the early 2000s.
New Zealand values the Japanese tourism market because they’re big spenders and aren’t as seasonal as tourists from places like Europe and the US.
When I started researching this trip, I interviewed Rene De Monchy from Tourism New Zealand who told me the Japanese inbound numbers were a little over 20 percent of what they were pre-Covid. A staggering shortfall given visitors from countries such as Singapore are almost back to 100 percent of pre-Covid levels.
I talked to a number of travel operators in New Zealand who had many reasons and theories for why this is, but I wanted to get on the ground and find out for myself.
Juliet Speedy Interviewing a grand tea master in Hakone
Camera operator Bob Grieve and I flew from Christchurch to Auckland and then took the only direct flight currently available to Japan, which took us to Tokyo's Narita International Airport.
We got straight to work the next day, interviewing people including a large-scale outbound travel operator, a young Tokyo-based university student, Air New Zealand’s long running head of Japan and Tourism New Zealand staff based in Tokyo.
We learned that a big part of the drop can be attributed to Japanese being cautious travellers and choosing to holiday at home, but there are a number of other reasons for tourism numbers remaining low.
The yen is at historic lows, meaning long haul destinations like New Zealand, Europe and the US have all become very expensive for Japanese travellers and long-haul destinations are far more competitive than they once were, so New Zealand is having to work harder to attract them. On top of this, New Zealand is not considered the safe destination it once was.
Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand are working together on campaigns and strategies to lure Japanese tourists back – including bringing young Japanese influencers with large social media followings out to New Zealand to showcase the country to their fans. The numbers are starting to pick up, but there is more work to do, particularly attracting younger travellers.
As mentioned, another reason that might account for some of the drop in Japanese travelling to New Zealand is an increase in people choosing to spend their holidays visiting destinations within their own borders and it’s easy to see why. While it's beyond beautiful, rich in culture and varied in aesthetic, compared to New Zealand, it is also very cheap.
Bob and I were flabbergasted at how cheap the food and internal travel was. We could go out for an enormous and incredibly delicious lunch with more food than we could finish for around $30NZD for the two of us.
Interviewing New Zealander Tony Everitt with the owner of a traditional teahouse near the town of Hakone
From Tokyo, we travelled south to meet some New Zealanders living and working in remote parts of Japan who are having a big influence on the growing adventure tourism industry there.
We met with Kiwi Shannon Walker who runs travel company Kodo Travel in Shizuoka, which offers package tours to tourism agencies.
Shannon has been teaching Japanese operators that adventure tourism is more than just the adventure; it’s also about telling the story of the area they are showcasing. New Zealand is seen as a pioneer in this area and Japanese operators are keen to lap it up.
We then met with Mike Harris who, among other ventures, runs adventure tourism business, Caynons in Minakami.
The company, which offers rafting and canyoning activities, is thriving, employing over 100 staff and turning over millions of dollars each year.
Mike told us how far Japan has come in the adventure tourism space since he started there 20 years ago. He has played a large part in helping Japan develop the market, working with the Japanese Government to help set out policies and health and safety improvements.
Mike says the Japanese Government is now far more aware of the value of adventure tourism and that it can (and is) pulling travellers out of the overcrowded cities into the regions, something the Government is trying to encourage.
We then went north to Hakone where we chatted to Kiwi Tony Everitt who operates a tourism venture taking tourists on hikes through 500-year-old cedar forests of the old highway from Tokyo to Kyoto. He introduced us to Satoshi Mamamoto, who is the 13th generation to run a traditional tea house in the forest. An incredible family legacy.
Tony says Japanese tourists are increasingly interested in tourism that showcases the history of Japan and he is teaching local tourism operators this. Despite declining tourist numbers, he says New Zealand is still a highly desirable destination for Japanese travellers, particular in terms of its outdoor and adventure offerings.
Bob Grieve filming in Hakone
You feel very safe wherever you are in Japan. You can walk through central Tokyo – a city of millions – and bikes sit unlocked and handbags are left on tables. Nobody looks over their shoulder.
The country, like any, has its problems but for a tourist it is nothing less than charming.
New Zealand's safety profile has gone down in Japan, partly due to natural disasters in recent years but also because of the rise of crime. New Zealand is also seen as an expensive destination, particularly in the face of a low yen.
I left Japan feeling that New Zealand is still a very popular country for Japanese tourists but more work could be done to showcase our points of difference given the competition we now face.
I spoke to one young Japanese university student who said her friends are all heading to Europe because of the "food, the history and the culture". But given how busy Europe is and how expensive it has got, New Zealand can capitalise on our environment and attract a traveller looking for natural beauty and adventure.
Some Newshub stories from the visit
The Foundation's media programme helps New Zealand journalists cover stories that shed light on Asia and on New Zealand’s ties to the region. We support journalists to build their knowledge of Asia by providing media travel grants, internships in Asian newsrooms and fellowships for senior journalists.
Our media travel grants provide New Zealand journalists with funding to travel independently to Asia to research and prepare stories – to help demystify Asia for New Zealand audiences.