Online Travel Attracts Unlikely New Players

Economy Guide to Japan Society

Japan’s “Go To Travel” campaign is aiding the travel industry’s gradual recovery, but amid ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, virtual tours are growing in popularity. High-definition footage of popular tourist attractions has been packaged with opportunities for online interaction to develop new ways to scratch the travel itch.

Virtual Visits Offered by Toppan

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has enticed surprising new players into the tourism industry, such as publishing house Toppan Printing.

But the “travel” Toppan offers does not require contact with, or even movement of, people. Since September, Toppan has worked with its Tokyo-based subsidiary Toppan Travel Service, creating online tours that employ virtual reality technology and web-conferencing systems.

For over 20 years, Toppan has used VR technology to preserve high-definition images of cultural assets, leveraging image processing skills it developed for printing.

One of its first new offerings is a virtual tour of the popular temple Tōshōdai-ji, in Nara.

Participants view high-definition footage prepared at Toppan Printing’s studio, using their home computers to access VR images to venture deep inside the grounds of Tōshōdai-ji. A monk from the temple gives a talk on the life of Jianzhen (Ganjin in Japanese), a Chinese monk who helped to spread Buddhism in Japan in the eighth century. The tours start at ¥30,000 per person, for groups of around 30, but prices vary depending on participant numbers and content.

Virtual tour of Tōshōdai-ji, Nara, offered through the “Profound Tourism” program. (Courtesy of Toppan Printing)
Virtual tour of Tōshōdai-ji, Nara, offered through the “Profound Tourism” program. (Courtesy of Toppan Printing)

Real-time broadcast from the VR studio. (Courtesy of Toppan Printing)
Real-time broadcast from the VR studio. (Courtesy of Toppan Printing)

Toppan has plans for other online tours, including a special viewing of precious folding screen art from Kyoto, and a Zen meditation experience from Tokyo. the firm intends to market to corporate and school clients in particular, aiming for cumulative sales of ¥1 billion by March 2024.

The entry of unexpected players into online travel, spurred by the current pandemic, gives us glimpse into potential changes to tourism in the post-COVID-19 world. Online tours are not simply a substitute for actual travel, but a new style of tourism.

Travel Agencies and Airlines Join the Fray

The drastic drop in demand for travel due to COVID-19 is self-evident. According to the Japan Tourism Agency, Japan’s 48 major travel companies saw a 90% fall in revenue in June 2020 compared with June 2019. July, too, was 80% below 2019 levels. From late July, the government has implemented the “Go To Travel” campaign to support both the travel industry and regional economies. Travel to and from Tokyo was excluded until late September, due to its higher infection rate, but this restriction has since been lifted. The impact of the campaign is still limited at this stage. According to a survey of 1,000 consumers by the marketing journal Nikkei MJ, a mere 9.8% traveled in August.

A further factor is the interruption of inbound tourism which, in 2019, accounted for some 20% of Japan’s total tourism revenue of ¥26 trillion.

Online tours were born from such adversity. Regional bus companies first entered the market in the spring; now many others have joined them, including major operators.

Since September, Japan’s biggest travel agency, JTB, has sold travel products enabling customers to savor stunning sights, including an online Hawaiian tour that “visits” Kīlauea in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and offers views from the peak of Mauna Kea.

From October, JTB also launched virtual field trips for schools, which were forced to cancel planned group excursions due to the pandemic. The company sends the schools simple VR goggles that connect to smartphones to display 360-degree footage of famous sites and ruins typically visited, such as temples and shrines in Kyoto and Nara. The tours include online interaction with people students would usually encounter on their excursions, such as a maiko apprentice geisha and a ryokan (inn) proprietress. The company also arranges for field trip experiences at the school, such as Kiyomizuyaki pottery and Yūzen dyeing.

A school field trip, experienced through VR tech. (Courtesy of JTB)
A school field trip, experienced through VR tech. (Courtesy of JTB)

Hankyū Travel International also set up a project team to investigate online tourism. The outcome was online programs including a visit to sake breweries in Tendō, Yamagata Prefecture, and a tour of locations where the 1953 movie Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn, was filmed.

But the online tour business is not limited to travel agencies. Japan Airlines launched its first online tour in July. It features a fictitious flight route from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Oki Airport in Shimane Prefecture, with views from the cockpit. To enhance the experience, JAL predelivers regional delicacies to customers to eat while on the virtual tour.

The Aging Society Creates New Travel Demand

The revenue from online tours is still low compared with that of actual travel. Because there are no transport or accommodation components, tours cost much less per person—generally only a few thousand yen.

But as the concept of online travel becomes more widely known, it is opening the door to new, unforeseen potential.

According to one travel agency, the tours attracted a greater age range of participants, from infants to nonagenarians. People living further away can also more readily join—in some cases, families living apart have been able to “travel” together.

This is an attractive benefit of online travel: Anyone can go. Elderly people, who may be frail or suffer chronic conditions, and people who have an aversion to traveling long distances or flying, can more easily visit destinations in Japan and abroad. Such “travel” is inexpensive, does not take as much time, and requires no bothersome preparations and packing. This could make it more appealing to people who want to travel, but lack time or funds.

Online tour coordinators anticipated business from their existing repeat clientele, but have actually been receiving bookings from a wider range of people. These online programs have unearthed new, unexpected demand for travel.

And these advantages of online tourism will likely remain evident even after the pandemic ends. Japan’s aging population undoubtedly offers potential for growth in demand for tours that anybody can join. After COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, global movement will return, and people will again work abroad, creating demand for online travel bringing together family and friends who live apart.

In the past, the introduction of television changed the way we view sporting events. Now we attend some matches and watch others, such as night games or sumō tournaments, from the comfort of home. In the future, online tours may similarly become established as a legitimate alternative to real-world travel.

Post-COVID-19, the travel industry will see competition between real and online tours. There will also be new players who follow Toppan Printing into the market. Real travel will need to try harder to promote value that online tours cannot offer.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo © Pixta.)

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