Shoppers look around a section for Japanese food products at a department store of Yata Ltd in Hong Kong. (Kyodo photo)
HONG KONG: With trips to Japan being so popular among people from Hong Kong, Tokyo sees the city as a testing ground for trying out various initiatives and analysing behavioural patterns as it seeks to attract more foreign tourists.
A record 2.2 million Hongkongers visited Japan in 2017, up 21.3% from the previous year, according to the Japan National Tourism Organisation. This means that more than one in three people from the Chinese territory have visited Japan, and almost 21% of them have done so more than 10 times.
“There is nowhere else that resonates as much as Hong Kong. The locals really like Japan and have deep knowledge that even we Japanese don’t know,” said Yasumasa Shimizu, JNTO’s senior director at the Hong Kong office, citing as an example the popularity among Hong Kong people of the Iya spa resort in the unexplored region of Tokushima Prefecture in western Japan.
In Hong Kong, Japan is the top tourist destination, surpassing Taiwan and Thailand in second and third, respectively, thanks to the spread of Japanese food and culture, an economic recovery and the yen’s depreciation, which makes Japan a bargain destination, JNTO said.
“We try to be creative and help people understand Japanese culture” so that they will want to travel to Japan and taste the authentic food, said Susanna Wong, CEO of Yata Ltd, which operates 11 department stores and supermarkets in Hong Kong specialising in Japanese foods and lifestyles.
Wong said her company also seeks to “show the latest gourmet trends across Japan and recreate the Japanese lifestyle.”
“Fruits and green tea are always popular,” she said. “Hong Kong people also like new things, like in snacks.”
By country and region, Hong Kong was the largest importer of Japanese agriculture, forestry and fisheries exports — at a value of 187.7 billion yen (55 billion baht) — in 2017 for the 13th straight year. There are more than 1,500 Japanese restaurants in the city, according to the Japanese government.
In Yata’s Tseung Kwan O store, a popular large black bear mascot called Kumamon originating from Japan’s southwestern Kumamoto prefecture welcomes customers, while Japanese wagyu beef, sake, fruits and snacks imported directly from Japan line the shelves.
Sushi and sake bars have been set up with eat-in spaces, as has a booth devoted to products from Tokushima, open for a limited period.
“Among our products, jams and drinks using yuzu citrus fruit are especially popular,” said Shiro Oka, chief representative of the Shanghai office of the Tokushima Industrial Promotion Organisation, adding that the organisation held a low-carb tasting event of konnyaku “noodles” for health-conscious consumers. “Competition is tough but I hope more people will visit Tokushima.”
There are 15 Japanese cities to where low-cost carriers and regular airlines fly from Hong Kong.
JNTO officials said they try to attract tourists to Japan from Hong Kong in different seasons, pitching food items that can only be eaten at certain times of the year, such as crabs in the winter, or experiences like firework festivals in the summer or fruit picking in spring.
The organisation has also set its sights on offering a new type of tourism: Japan as a destination for holding weddings, after data showed that some 10% of Hong Kong couples choose to wed outside the city with an average expenditure of US$13,000 (405,000 baht).
Around 97% take part in so-called “photo weddings,” in which no actual wedding ceremony is held but only photos are taken, with 70% being held overseas.
In 2016, more than 1,000 couples came to Japan to have weddings, while 6,111 couples picked Japan for photo weddings.
“Hong Kong provides us with insights on what works in tourism,” said JNTO’s Shimizu. “We want to use the experience and implement this in attracting tourists from other countries.”
Japan has seen a surge in foreign visitors in recent years, with the number hitting a record of over 28 million in 2017. The government is seeking to increase the figure to 40 million in 2020 when the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will be held.