East Meets West, Again
Enticed by Great Deals, Japanese Return to L.A.
By DEBORAH BELGUM
They’ve been seen crowding around artwork at the Getty Center. They’ve been spotted on Rodeo Drive and at the Duty Free Shop at Hollywood & Highland.
They’re the elusive Japanese tourist who all but disappeared from Los Angeles after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks decimated international travel.
While large tour groups still haven’t made a strong comeback off by as much as 50 or 60 percent individual Japanese travelers are back in town. They’re being led by the young traveler with an adventuresome spirit and a penchant for all things American. And they’re being lured with discount hotel prices, welcome drinks, in-room fruit baskets, limousine rides to the beach and commemorative souvenirs.
One Japanese travel agency executive estimated that nearly 90 percent of his independent Japanese traveler business is back after losing most of it after Sept. 11.
A trickle of young Japanese travelers began appearing in the area in mid-February when university students started getting out of school for their winter break. Leading the pack were graduates eager to go to the U.S. before they began their new jobs on April 1.
One of the hotels benefiting from the rise in travel is the Hotel Figueroa, a popular Japanese travel destination with California Mission style architecture and Moroccan d & #233;cor near Staples Center. General manager Uno Thimansson said individual Japanese travelers like to be near the popular arena and the central-area freeways.
“The younger people feel more confident about traveling on their own. They speak the language. They may rent a car,” said Thimansson, who added that Japanese group travel at the Hotel Figueroa is still off by 50 percent from last year.
While the older group traveler continues to fret about security issues and the Japanese recession, the young tourist is tossing safety concerns aside. Money is the only factor holding young people back, so travel agencies are cobbling together low-price tour packages to entice them to Los Angeles.
At HIS Tours USA Inc., which targets the 20- to 35-year-old traveler, a stepped-up effort has been launched to double the number of Japanese travelers normally coming to Los Angeles in September, one of the biggest months of the year for Japanese tourism in the city.
Dubbed Mission 10,000, the travel agency is trying to make up for lost business by bringing 10,000 Japanese tourists to the L.A. area this fall. Normally they book 5,000 to 6,000 tourists in September.
“We started this project in March,” said Bobby Valenciano, director of the hotel and group division for HIS Tours in L.A. “How far we will go in making that goal, we don’t know. But we’re providing a lot of free services for our clients.” In 2001, the agency booked 25,000 Japanese tourists to all of the West Coast, compared with 30,000 to 40,000 in 2000.
While these free services may cut into the agency’s profitability, at least it will generate some buzz back in Japan about traveling to the West Coast. “We are spending money to get them back,” said Valenciano. “There is an old Chinese saying, ‘Sometimes you need more volume than profit.'”
To get that volume, HIS Tours is asking hotels and airlines to drop their rates as much as possible. Local hotels are reducing their room rates by as much as 10 to 15 percent, Valenciano said, and hotels are being asked to provide “value-added” amenities, such as a welcome drink for newly arrived travelers, bottles of Evian water in the room, or a fruit plate.
For those staying in Santa Monica, there is free limousine service from the hotel to the beach. New clients receive Dodger tickets. Some travel agencies are even marketing tours around the two Japanese pitchers playing for the Dodgers. The local office of the Japanese Travel Bureau is arranging spa packages for young unmarried Japanese women who live at home but have well-paying jobs.
Despite all these plans to attract customers, airline ridership between Japan and Los Angeles remains down at least 30 percent from last year. There were 66 flights from Japan to Los Angeles last week compared with 95 flights during the like period a year ago, according to the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau. Flights are running about three-quarters full.
The loss of the Japanese traveler over the past year has put a dent into the L.A. economy. Japanese tourists are the No. 1 overseas traveler to the region. In 2000, 673,000 Japanese visitors coming to the area contributed $506 million to local coffers. Last year, that slid to 570,000 Japanese travelers who spent $429 million.
George Kirkland, president of the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau, is part of a department working group striving to figure out ways to bring more Japanese tourists to the United States.
Earlier this year, the LACVB and the state of California ran a two-month-long promotional campaign called “Yappari California,” or “After all, it’s California.” Some 100 free trips were given away. The top prize was a free trip to L.A. and an appearance to throw out the first pitch at a Dodgers game.
Hotels and tour operators are hoping to see the Japanese group tourism industry pick up this fall when hotel rates and airfares usually drop. Also, by then, the 2002 World Cup competition being held in Korea and Japan this June will be over.