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11:38 10 March 2017

FEATURE: Kyoto facing acute accommodation shortage amid booming tourism

By Kazuya Endo
KYOTO, March 10, Kyodo

Kyoto, deemed one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, is facing a pressing problem -- an acute shortage of accommodation.

"More than 55 million tourists visit Kyoto annually," said Mayo Mieno, a Kyoto city government official. The increase in foreign visitors has been so steep in recent years that Japanese travelers have started complaining of being unable to find places to stay, she said.

There are many foreign visitors in group tours who have no other choice but to stay as far away as in Mie or Okayama prefectures, when visiting the ancient capital of Japan, according to Mieno.

Major hotels in Kyoto are almost fully booked with occupancy rates standing at around 90 percent all year round.

The rates for Japanese-style inns in Kyoto, meanwhile, are about 70 percent, nearly twice as high as the national average.

The shortage of accommodation is a common problem for popular Japanese tourist destinations on the so-called "Golden Route" linking Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

The Japanese government targets 40 million visitors from abroad in 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and 60 million in 2030. It also hopes the foreign visitors will spend 8 trillion yen ($70 billion) in 2020 and 15 trillion yen in 2030.

Under the 2020 target Kyoto is expected to receive 4.4 million to 6.3 million foreign visitors, thus making it necessary to add 6,000 guest rooms from the 2015 level in the area.

In addition to the construction of new hotels, authorities and businesses see "minpaku," or private lodging, as one that could offer a solution.

Against the background of the accommodation shortage in popular tourist areas, the number of minpaku, which means offering paid accommodations to travelers at private houses, apartments and other rooms, is surging.

Many foreign visitors have accordingly come to stay in minpaku despite most of them being illegal in Japan.

The Kyoto government said that in February the website of U.S.-based Airbnb Inc. was offering 4,650 minpaku rooms in the city, up nearly 2,000 from a year earlier.

"An estimated 90 percent or more of minpaku are believed to be unauthorized and illegal," said Mieno, the 37-year-old director of the Kyoto City Tourism & MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) Office.

Many operators see minpaku rooms as an easy business, with some merely offering a sofa to sleep on. They reportedly do not fulfill safety or sanitary criteria required to run accommodation businesses, nor do they consult with neighborhood officials.

The Kyodo city government has received numerous complaints from residents about noise and garbage involving minpaku, but in many cases has been unable to contact the properties' owners or managers.

Japan's Cabinet recently approved a bill to impose a heavier penalty for unauthorized private lodging business amid those problems.

The central government compiled the bill to promote its bid to get tough on unlicensed private lodging operators, while encouraging deregulation in the sector to address the accommodation shortage.

As a means of increasing accommodation, there is a move in Kyoto to promote the use of refurbished traditional houses as lodging facilities.

Hachise Co., a local real estate agent, began buying traditional houses early in the 2000s for refurbishment in order to use them as lodging facilities or to resell them.

"We are dealing with some 100 houses a year and 20 to 30 percent of our customers are from abroad," Naoki Nishimura, 38, senior managing director of Hachise, said.

"Orders are increasing not only from Asian areas such as Hong Kong and Singapore but also from France and other European countries. Many are people who love Kyoto. They use them (the refurbished houses) as their home in Japan and also as a means of asset management."

Mieno said she hopes minpaku will not only solve the accommodation shortage but will become a new tourist attraction.

Other municipalities, meanwhile, hope to increase visitors by taking advantage of the accommodation shortage in major cities.

"The flow of people causing the shortage of lodging facilities in cities offers big opportunities to rural regions," said Tatsushi Takasago, 51, head of the tourism promotion section in the government of Chino, Nagano Prefecture.

Takasago has previously promoted tour programs for homestay programs for students on school excursions to the Goto Islands, Nagasaki Prefecture. He is currently in charge of strategies for the promotion of tourism in Chino, a well-known mountain resort.

"I would like to offer programs that will enable visitors to enjoy the agriculture and other experiences here and increase local farmers' extra income so that Chino will retain its features 50 or 100 years later," Takasago said.

The government stresses economic benefits under it goal of luring 40 million foreign visitors. It is up to local authorities and businesses to use the opportunity to help build their futures.

==Kyodo

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