October 27, 2014 7:00 am JST

Western Japan looks to get foreigners on the rails

GORO KURAMOTO, TOMOYA ONISHI and SUGURU KURIMOTO, Nikkei staff writers

Taiwanese tourists board a sightseeing train at JR Kyushu's Hakata Station.

TOKYO -- Railway operators in the west of Japan are bolstering efforts to attract the growing number of foreign visitors.

     Japanese customers in the west continue to decline, because of demographic and economic issues.

     Budget airlines and growing wealth in Asia, however, offer part of the solution. And Japan is aiming to attract 20 million plus foreign visitors in the coming years.

     By touting luxury, offering better services and adapting to the needs of overseas populations, railway lines are getting people through the ticket gates. 

Native speakers

Kansai International Airport, near Osaka in western Japan, handles the highest number of takeoffs and landings by international budget airlines in the country.

     To serve foreign visitors better, West Japan Railway opened a separate "Green Window" customer service counter for overseas travelers at the airport in August. Foreign staff who speak Chinese and English are stationed there. The service has been hugely popular.

     "A line forms at the counter every time an international flight lands," an official at JR West said.

     The rail company also offers customer service by foreign staff at hub stations, such as Tennoji, Shin-Osaka and Kyoto. Favorite spots for foreign tourists visiting the region include Kyoto, Nara and Universal Studios Japan.

     Smaller railway operators in the Kansai region are also stepping up efforts to increase the number of foreign passengers.

     Nankai Electric Railway competes with JR West in rail services connecting central Osaka with Kansai International Airport. It opened a prayer room for Muslims in a commercial facility directly connected with its Namba terminal station in central Osaka.

     This space is free to use even for those not riding Nankai's trains. The company has created the room in anticipation of a sharp increase in the number of tourists from Muslim countries. Nankai also sells halal food in the same commercial facility to cater to the needs of Muslims.

     "We will reap the benefits of having more foreign visitors outside the railway business as well," President Shinji Watari said.

     Railway passengers in the Kansai region have been dwindling due to the aging population and the relocation of major businesses to Tokyo. When JR West, formerly a state-owned railway operator, is excluded, the region's next five biggest rail operators carry fewer than 2 billion passengers a year today, down from roughly 2.5 billion 20 years ago.

Hot in Thailand

Kyushu Railway, meanwhile, took part in a world travel expo in Bangkok in mid-August for the first time. The exhibition booth of the company, which serves the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, attracted a lot of visitors. Screening of a video that introduces the company's Yufuin no Mori rail service for tourists and eight others was particularly popular.

     Interest in Seven Stars in Kyushu, a luxury sightseeing sleeper train service that JR Kyushu began operating in October last year, has been growing in and outside Japan. To promote the service in Thailand, the railway company has teamed up with the company World Surprise Travel. As a result of the partnership, well-heeled Thais will be able to book a two-night chartered service on the train from late November.

     Kyushu has seen the number of visitors from Southeast Asia rise sharply since the Japanese government eased visa requirements. JR Kyushu has consequently seen a dramatic jump in sales of its railway passes for foreign visitors.

     The company sold 18 times more JR Kyushu Rail Passes in July than in the same month a year earlier in Thailand. A direct flight between Bangkok and Fukuoka by a budget airline began operating in late June. For fiscal 2014, which ends March 2015, JR Kyushu anticipates record sales of 140,000 JR Kyushu Rail Passes, up 40% from fiscal 2013.

     The company is working toward an initial public offering, but it must get its railway business back into the black by fiscal 2016 if it is to do so. It hopes foreign tourists will help it achieve the goal.

     "We will improve our earnings by attracting foreign visitors," President Toshihiko Aoyagi, said.

     Foreign visitors are a high-priority target for the railway operators, as this is just about the only customer segment that is sure to grow in the near future.

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