Over coffee with… Ryoichi Matsuyama

He became president of Japan National Tourism Organization in October 2011, months after the Tohoku earthquake and disaster, and led Japan to prominence. Watch him hit 20 million arrivals by 2020 with mega events in Japan’s pocket. But far from rushing headlong into things, Raini Hamdi finds Ryoichi Matsuyama a pragmatic leader with an eye for sustainability

Were the months after the tsunami the biggest challenge in your illustrious career?

It was one of the most difficult challenges. I have been in the private sector for some time now and there have been so many ups and downs (laughs). But the tsunami was very serious, because of the number of lives lost, and the nuclear radiation fears. Even when we had said Japan was safe to visit, no one believed us. But we kept giving only the facts and we invited 1,000 journalists and travel agency people to see Japan for themselves. As well, celebrities like Lady Gaga – she loves Japan and she was spreading the good message for us.

Eventually we were able to restore the confidence of visitors, including those from countries such as Singapore and Germany who were sensitive (about safety). Arrivals went up drastically and we hit 10 million in 2013. We had 8.6 million in 2010, 6.2 million in 2011 (disaster year), 8.3 million in 2012, 10 million in 2013 and 13.4 million in 2014.

Was visa easing the main reason why Japan rose to such prominence in the last couple of years?

It was a combination of factors, including our effort to restore the confidence of people to visit Japan; Abenomics, which saw the devaluation of the yen and made Japan cheaper for people to visit; a growing middle-class in Asia; visa facilitation on our part of course; but I believe a major driving force was that the private sector – airlines, hotels, meetings sector, etc – was eager to collaborate with one another to bring back arrivals. In the past they operated more on an individual basis; the disaster brought them closer together.

Regarding the visa easing, was that a government initiative or did you have to push for it?

We assessed the different visa requirements for different countries and tried to streamline them.

But of course we have always to work with other government departments and approach visa facilitation with the perspective of having a balance: ease visas on the one hand but maintain law and order on the other, making sure the ‘right’ people are coming in and they don’t stay longer than they should.

Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia now enjoy visa-free status and we are now seriously working to try and get this facility for Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines – but it will take time. India and China now have multiple-entry visa status, from single entry perviously.

We are also trying to speed up visa processing and are studying to implement electronic visas but again, this will take time.

So now your task is to double the 10 million to 20 million by 2020.

Yes, as you know, Japan is hosting the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. We have also successfully bidded for the 2019 Rugby World Cup (which will be held in 12 venues across Japan)and, in 2021, we will host the World Masters Games (in Kansai – the event is an international multi-sport athletic competition which gives the middle-aged and older generation the opportunity to participate).

With the Olympics you can draw some 10 million visitors. With the World Masters, 26 million, sometimes even more.

So there is a chain of mega events and everyone can take this opportunity to visit Japan. We also believe these events will expand and strengthen the image of Japan as a place for meetings.

How so?

Actually right after we won the bid to host the Olympics, in September 2013, Japan secured four big events with more than 6,000 delegates, outbidding strong countries including Singapore.

I think such events demonstrate to planners our capability to host and organise meetings. For example, we took over the IMF/World Bank meetings in 2012 when they had to move from Cairo. Such meetings are huge and complicated; normally it takes four years of preparation but we did it in two years.

So track record, the ability to perform, is important for MICE.

Studies have shown it isn’t necessary that host countries of mega events actually benefit from them.

Yes, there is an argument that they require lots of investment in the construction of the necessary infrastructure, that afterwards the economy drops. Sometimes that happens, especially to emerging countries, but in the case of Japan, we hosted the Olympics in 1964 and there is some legacy remaining. Then, we had invested heavily in building freeways, bullet trains, stadiums, hotels, so for the Tokyo Olympics, apart from a new stadium, we will try to use the existing facilities as much as possible. Our Olympics investment isn’t huge, estimated at ¥340 billion (US$2.5 billion), compared with more than US$13 million for the London Olympics. Of the ¥340 billion, ¥150 billion will go towards building the new stadium.

Is your stadium as designy as the Bird’s Nest in Beijing?

(Laughs) It is designed by Zaha Hadid and at first it was so fabulous, but we found it cost too much! So we had to modify it. There are lessons from the past which we can learn from. For example, when Nagano hosted the winter Olympics (in 1998), it built huge facilities and faced serious financial trouble afterwards. Mega events create a good impact but the key is to pay attention to what happens after the event – how do we persuade people to come back as repeat visitors? This is what we are now seriously discussing with Visit Britain, with which we signed an MOU. London, which successfully hosted the Olympics in 2012, is also a mature city like Tokyo and there is much we can learn from it. London used the Olympics as a means to change the image of Great Britain as a friendlier destination. Los Angeles was so commercial, with lots of sponsorships. Barcelona used it to build a new city. We are discussing with the many stakeholders in Japan what legacy we want the Tokyo Olympics to leave behind. One is perhaps as the most handicapped-friendly Olympics. Another is as a model of how a mature city can successfully host the Games without the normal heavy investments that come with them, and one that is able to sustain the benefits after the event. 2020 is a milestone, it’s not the end.

There are not enough rooms as it is in Tokyo. What are you doing about it? 

We are persuading hotel developers to come in and build more hotels, especially more four-star hotels. We don’t give incentives; we present the facts and they can see for themselves how attractive it is to build. Price increase is a worry but presently Tokyo hotels are two-thirds of London prices, so they are fairly cheap.

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