ON A sunny day in May it is not hard to see why the Japanese island of Ishigaki, some 2,000km from the capital, Tokyo, is becoming a tourist magnet. This year the crystal-watered, coral-reefed island was named the world’s hottest destination by TripAdvisor, a travel website. It is already popular with Asians from nearby Taiwan and Hong Kong, and increasingly with Westerners looking for a counterpoint to temple-touring and tea ceremonies in Kyoto. Last year 1.4m foreign and local tourists visited, twice the number in 2013, when a new airport opened.
But there is trouble in paradise. Karry Kanko, a bus company, has new vehicles sitting idle for want of drivers. It has already cut some routes. Taxis are hard to find. At Art Hotel the manager sometimes doubles as a chamber maid. Guests are offered a discount to forgo the daily cleaning of their rooms, to reduce staffing needs. “We are struggling,” admits Yoshiharu Takamine, who stepped down as head of the local tourist-information centre in May.
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In 2016 the Japanese government set ambitious targets for foreign visitors as a way to generate economic growth as the population ages and shrinks. It reckoned that tourists might also help to reinvigorate struggling rural communities. There is definitely room for growth; inbound tourism accounted for just 0.8% of GDP in Japan in 2016, compared with 2.1% in France and the United Kingdom, 12.9% in Thailand and 17.6% in Cambodia. The plan is working. The government is on track to reach its goal, revised up this year, of 40m visitors (a 67% increase on 2016) by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympics.
But the rapid growth has brought problems. Akihiko Tamura, the head of the government tourism agency, acknowledges that the industry faces “many challenges”, most obviously a shortage of labour. In the town of Nikko, a tourist spot close to Tokyo, one of Japan’s most storied inns, Kanaya Hotel, is hiring pensioners because it cannot recruit enough working-age staff, let alone those with the right skills, says Yasuo Mine, the (himself ageing) chairman.
Relatively few Japanese have both the ability and confidence to converse smoothly in English or other foreign languages. Tobu Railway, a sprawling company that runs hotels as well as tourist trains between Tokyo and Nikko, has employed some foreign staff to help visitors, but still has problems communicating with non-Japanese, says Kenji Aoyagi, who heads its foreign-tourism department. Most companies rely on point-sheets, translation apps or telephone services to communicate with guests.
There are cultural barriers, too. Shizue Usui, the head of Nikko’s association of okami—female hosts at inns—says they tend to think “tradition should be maintained.” That often boils down to rigid rules about check-in, meal times and other services.
Infrastructure is also a concern. There are limited international flights to cities other than Tokyo and Osaka. Landing slots are in short supply in Tokyo, where the government recently approved the construction of a new runway at Narita airport. There are not even enough beds. Tokyo is reckoned to have a shortage of 3,500 hotel rooms. This month a new law will explicitly legalise the rental of private rooms, via platforms such as Airbnb, to help reduce the shortage of accommodation.
Marketing is yet another problem. The government wants more people to make repeat trips, and to visit places beyond the three big hubs of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. It would also like to attract more tourists from Europe and America, since it reckons they stay longer and therefore spend more. (About 85% of visitors are Asian.) Many Westerners consider Japan for a holiday but only a small proportion actually end up going, says Tasuku Kuwabara of McKinsey, a consultancy. They worry that Japan will be expensive and do not realise the variety of attractions it offers.
There is an obvious solution to the labour shortage, at least: import more workers. Hotel Royal Marine Palace on Ishigaki has hired nine Chinese employees, including three this year. But their visas are limited to short periods. The local tourist office has been asking the government to ease visa rules to make it easier for tourist businesses to employ immigrants. But the idea is a political hot potato. If more foreigners were allowed to work, even more foreigners would be able to come as tourists.