TOKYO -- Japan will begin to promote "workcations" -- working in vacation-like settings -- in 34 national parks and 80 hot spring resorts across the nation in response to increased remote work and decreased tourism due to the new coronavirus pandemic.
The push by the environment ministry will financially support hotels and other tourist facilities gifted with beautiful natural assets to improve teleworking infrastructure, not the least of which is fast, dependable Wi-Fi.
The COVID-19 pandemic has spawned a fresh wave of interest in teleworking, especially in natural surroundings where workers can toil but at least feel liberated from drab office settings. And the government's efforts may help offset the lack of foreign tourists, who have been prevented from visiting due to the global crisis.
In 2016, a project was launched to increase the number of annual foreign visitors to national parks to 10 million in 2020 from 4.3 million in 2015. Fast forward to 2018 when 6.94 million foreign tourists visited national parks, marking a 16% increase from the previous year. But the pandemic has dashed hopes of meeting the 2020 target as international tourism has all but evaporated.
Another goal of the government is to encourage visitors to stay longer at national parks than the 1.3-night average, according to the ministry. Workcations may be the answer.
In addition to tourist facilities in parks, the program will help hotels and inns at 80 hot spring resorts to run special workcation experience tours and upgrade communications. By the end of June, the ministry will select up to 200 operators from all program applicants, allocating 600 million yen ($5.6 million) in a supplementary budget that was recently passed in parliament.
Wakayama Prefecture pioneered workcations in Japan as a matter of policy to boost local tourism in fiscal 2017. The idea has since caught on in other localities, with Nagano and Tottori prefectures following Wakayama's lead. Last November, 65 prefectures and municipalities formed a body to promote workcations in Japan, with the number of participants now reaching 89.
A raft of businesses have relocated to Shirahama, a famous beach and hot spring resort in Wakayama, with real estate developer Mitsubishi Estate offering workcation offices in the tourist getaway since May 2019.
The trend has attracted the attention of other Japanese companies as a way to prompt employees to take more paid vacations. Japan Airlines tested a workcation program for employees in fiscal 2017 and made it official the next year.
Japanese companies are slowly recognizing the value of the flexible work style that workcations embody. Combining business and leisure no longer means sacrificing efficiency. They now see that working in natural surroundings can help achieve new levels of productivity and creativity.
Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic could derail the rising appeal of workcations. Despite the June 19 lifting of voluntary restrictions on travel across prefectural borders, the risk of a second wave of COVID-19 infections still looms. Any further outbreak could see travel curbs reimposed.
Another concern of companies is the possible blurring of lines between work and leisure. One key challenge for businesses embracing the new approach is to establish ways of tracking workcation work hours and paying accordingly.