Joni Mitchell once sang: “They paved paradise, And put up a parking lot, With a pink hotel, a boutique, And a swinging hot spot, Don’t it always seem to go, That you don’t know what you’ve got, ‘Til it’s gone, They paved paradise, And put up a parking lot.”

Who would have thought the lyrics penned by the blonde hippy icon would so neatly encapsulate bitter sweet elements of the travel business and also Australia’s relationship with Japanese travellers, which peaked in the mid-1990s but has been going downhill ever since

The fall has been dramatic, serving as a warning to the travel industry that it should never again fall into the trap of relying on a single market for business.

The numbers are stark. In the year to August, 1996, 812,000 Japanese tourists visited Australia.

Fifteen years later Japanese visitors had dwindled to just 350,000, with particularly savage falls in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

The slump has been close to catastrophic for leisure-based destinations such as Cairns which are now looking to new markets such as China and India for redemption.

But there is now hope the Japanese inbound market may have bottomed out and is primed for rejuvenation, though there is consensus that things will never be the same again.

How could they be? In the 1990s there were so many Japanese tourists visiting Australia they became something of a cliché.

Tour buses packed with camera clicking Japanese roamed the east coast tourist hotspots of Sydney, Cairns and the Gold Coast looking for photo ops.

Bondi locals vividly recall leaving the winter surf to be confronted by dozens of Japanese tourists, pants rolled to their knees, splashing in the surf, getting sand between their toes.

Happy, enthusiastic, a little naive, the Japanese, in particular twenty something women, aka Young Office Ladies, were effectively staging a mini-revolution against a traditionally conservative society.

In the process they changed the global travel dynamic, introducing the concept of mass tourism to markets like Guam, Australia and especially Hawaii, which attracted an amazing 2.15m Japanese tourists in 1997.

But as quickly as the market turned on, it turned off when the Japanese economy began to falter.

All key markets were hit. Hawaii for example is now hosting around half the number of visitors it had in the mid-1990s.

The Japanese psyche also evolved once again.

According to a Tourism Research Australia report in 2007, “Certain population groups, most notably young women, are exhibiting different life aspirations and attitudes to travel compared with earlier cohorts.

“Established demographic trends – a declining marriage rate, low fertility, population ageing and decline realistically (mean) the era of strong growth in outbound travel (ex-Japan) is likely to be over.”

In fact, outbound tourism from Japan has actually declined over the past decade.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organisation, 16.637 million Japanese went overseas last year compared with 17.818 million in 2000.

Despite figures like this Tourism Australia boss Andrew McEvoy is optimistic the Japan market, which is now Australia’s fifth biggest after being second behind New Zealand for many years, will rebound.

He says growth was positive, running at around 12 per cent in 2010, until the March tsunami stopped the market dead, resulting in an 11 per cent decline in the 12 months ending August.

However, there are signs of an inbound revival.

“I think there is now light on the horizon,” says Bernie Shultz, a Japan expert and board member of the Australian Tourism Export Council.

Central to improved performance is a new marketing agreement between Tourism Australia and Jetstar, which now dominates the aviation market between the countries and will be starting a new low cost carrier with Japan Airlines next year.

The first tranche of $2 million in joint marketing spend will directed to Japan – the first small step in long, hard journey.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get back to 800,000 visitors a year but it will remain a great value market with high spending visitors,” says Mr McEvoy.

He believes annual arrivals from Japan of between 400,000 and 500,000 with annual expenditure of A$2.7 billion to A$3.3 billion by 2020 is a more realistic goal.

Perhaps even more important are the lessons that Australia’s tourism industry can take from the Japanese market.

In particular – nothing lasts forever and you don’t know what you’ve got until it is gone.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Australian.

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