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Boat-hailing app tests waters in Japan's Mediterranean

New service designed to fill need for ferrying tourists and residents alike

Touring the many small islands in Japan's Seto Inland Sea could become more convenient for tourists using a boat-hailing app. (Photo courtesy of P.G. System)

HIROSHIMA, Japan -- Residents and sightseers in the Seto Inland Sea will be able to hail boats by smartphone just like taxis using a new app being tested this summer.

Boat ride-hailing is hoped to fill a gap for residents hit by decreasing service from regular ferries, as well as to increase tourism in the scenic islet-filled waterway nestled between Japan's main island of Honshu and smaller Shikoku. It could also play a similar role in other areas of Japan with outlying islands struggling with population decline.

Information technology company P.G. System will operate a trial boat-hailing platform in the area known as Setouchi this summer. A commercial version of the platform is aimed to launch in fiscal 2021.

Users choose ports for pickup and drop-off or specify routes, and the app matches them with available vessels. Passengers will be able to pay upfront. A tablet and smartphone app for chartered-boat operators and individuals with their own boats will let them offer rides and check their reservations.

The platform is targeted to host around 60 vessels and serve a daily 300 passengers or so in its first fiscal year. A trip will likely cost a passenger 2,000 to 3,000 yen ($18 to $28), a range comparable to standard water taxi rates. Operators and passengers will be encouraged to try routes with no regular boat service as well as standard sightseeing courses.

The developers also plan to let the app recommend passengers tailored sightseeing routes using artificial intelligence.

"If users want, they'll be able to link the app to their social media accounts so it can recommend a sightseeing plan based on their past posts or viewing history," said Hiroyuki Tsukuda, innovation officer at P.G. System.

The hailing platform would likely encourage more island dwellers and tourists to hop aboard, leading to greater uptime for the vessels. To help ensure smooth sailing, the service would also provide such information as the locations of nearby boats or stationary objects, including fishing nets and oyster rafts.

But the issue of booking pier usage presents a barrier to commercial use of the platform, as different piers have their own procedures for entering port or reserving spots. "Negotiations are underway" with such relevant bodies as municipalities and fishing cooperatives, Tsukuda said.

Collaborators on the project include regional tourism organization Setouchi DMO.

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