Kumamoto’s spirited return

A new way to appreciate Kumamoto Castle, nature highlights and intense destination promotions are helping to win hearts

Kumamoto prefecture is bouncing back from a drop in inbound business events visitors following earthquakes that shook the southern Kyushu region in 2016. Tremors of 6.5 and 7.3 magnitude struck the area on April 14 and 16 respectively, causing damage to buildings, infrastructure and tourist sites in Kumamoto city and neighbouring areas.

The biggest blow to the prefecture was the damage sustained to the turrets, exterior buildings, roofs and walls of Kumamoto Castle, an icon of the prefecture. Also a designated Important Cultural Property, the structure has long been a draw for business event travellers eager to see what is ranked as Japan’s third most beautiful castle.

Post-quake repairs to Kumamoto Castle (pictured) are drawing the interest of specialised corporate groups

Although visitors stayed away in the immediate aftermath of the tremors, in 2018 they returned with vigour, thanks to a new tour option.

Today, the castle remains out of bounds but travellers can follow the path around its outskirts. A popular option for corporate groups is to be led by a professional guide who explains the restoration process to date and what is yet to be carried out until the castle is completely restored, in about 20 years.

Guides report welcoming a growing number of groups in the fields of architecture, history, design, craftsmanship and construction, who want to see the component parts of the historic building and the cutting-edge reconstruction techniques used.

Outside the city, Kumamoto is being promoted as a haven in which to enjoy nature and delicious cuisine. As 21 per cent of the prefecture was designated part of a national park on March 31, 2018, local efforts are being supported by an Environment Ministry target to welcome 10 million visitors annually to Japan’s national parks by the time Japan hosts the 2020 Olympics.

Approximately six million international visitors visited national parks across Japan in 2017, of which 926,000 entered Aso-Kuju, the national park that straddles Kumamoto and Oita prefectures. This marks a 37.2 per cent rise in visitors to the Kumamoto park year-on-year, including the more nature-hungry incentive groups from China and South-East Asia.

Aso-Kuju is one of only eight national parks in Japan that is being promoted by the new national government project as part of efforts to support tourism and business event recovery. According to a park representative, grassland-centred activities such as early morning yoga and horse riding have proved successful in attracting corporate groups seeking wellness programmes.

Such groups are also attracted to nearby Aso Farm Land, a resort in rural Kumamoto. Its sales increased by two to three times year-on-year in 2017. It offers 450 earthquake-resistant domed homes as accommodation for guests who can experience a vast range of wellness treatments, hot springs and sports as well as gourmet cuisine. With direct flights to South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan from Kumamoto Airport, Aso Farm Land has been successful in targeting these markets.

Yet officials note that inbound visitors to Aso still lag behind pre-earthquake levels. At the 2018 Visit Japan Travel and MICE Mart, Kumamoto representatives reminded attendees that the prefecture is ready to welcome corporate groups. City officials point out that although the traditional access road from Kumamoto City to Aso remains closed due to damage from the earthquakes, other routes are available, which add a mere 15 minutes onto travel times.

Local tourism bodies, in association with Japan Agriculture, are eying agri-tourism as part of efforts to boost arrivals, particularly from Taipei and Singapore. Delegates would visit orchards to pick various fruits and enjoy tastings on site or at farmers’ markets.

According to Sun Sun Ong, senior manager at Singapore-based EU MICE, event organisers could “leverage the area’s Instagrammable scenery” to increase the appeal of the tours.

Improving transportation to the sites, meanwhile, would “increase the area’s competitiveness with other Asian destinations” while greater promotion would raise awareness of Kumamoto’s capabilities in the agri-tourism sector.

Promotion has been recognised as vital by the Kumamoto International Convention and Tourism Bureau. According to spokesperson Hiroyasu Fukuoka, 2018 saw the bureau team up with the cities of Fukuoka, Sasebo and Kitakyushu to offer familiarisation tips for guests from China, South Korea and Taiwan to promote the three key pillars: nature, cuisine and culture.

“We will continue to focus on these markets (for incentive groups) but we aim to develop Europe, the US and Australia in the future,” he added.

Improvements planned for Kumamoto Airport are expected to give the prefecture a further boost. Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Tourism are to privatise the airport by April 2020 in a bid to accelerate its post-quake reconstruction. The existing domestic terminal is scheduled to be demolished and replaced with a new terminal for both domestic and international flights by 2022.

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