sakura fujiyama,tokyo

In 1964, Japanese officials expected 130,000 foreigners to visit during the Olympics, so they encouraged proprieters to get ready for the world to flock across the seas, not only to Tokyo, but to the beautiful vistas around Tokyo and beyond.

But alas, government projections proved to be overly optimistic as only 70,000 tourists were estimated to arrive that October. Millions of dollars were spent to accommodate more people and make the experience for non-Japanese tourists a good one in popular resorts like Atami and Hakone, but facilities never got close to capacity.

Kyoto hoteliers turned down reservations by Japanese wanting to see the old capitol in all its beauty during the refreshing Autumn season in anticipation of the busloads and trainloads of foreigners instead saw occupancy rates plummet, when instead they should have been near capacity.

When a country holds the Olympics, there is a promise that the tourists will come and the money will flow for hotels and restaurants. It is a promise that goes unchallenged, and proven time and time again to be baseless.

circus maximusEconomist Andrew Zimbalist explains in his fascinating book, Circus Maximus – The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup,  that a country which hosts the Olympics may very well be welcoming a large number of foreign visitors (athletes, coaches, judges, media, family members, etc.), anywhere from 10 to 25,000 related to the Olympics. But rarely have there been instances where the number of tourists actually increase. Very often, it is the opposite – tourism decreases, sometimes significantly.

Zimbalist cited China, which dropped 6.8% in foreign visitors from 26.1 million in 2007 to 24.3 million in 2008 when the Olympics were hosted in Beijing. London experienced a year on year drop of 6.1% in overseas visitors from July and August 2011 to July August 2012, when the Summer Games were held there. Athens expected 105,000 foreign tourists per night during their Olympic Games in 2004, but in actually hosted only 14,000 per night.

Zimbalist does write that Sydney’s number did increase modestly from 2.5 million in 1999 to 2.7 million in 2000 when the Games were held in Australia, but that was more than a quarter less than projected, resulting in low occupancy rates on top of expansion hotel expansion in anticipation of higher numbers – just like in Tokyo in 1964.

So what’s happening?

A dynamic that is not understood is that Olympic traffic is not adding to overall numbers – it is merely replacing traffic that would have come. And yes,

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It’s not just Japan where taxi drivers are challenged by English. Brazil, which will be hosting the international sporting lovefest known as the Olympics in the summer of 2016, will also have to figure out how to communicate with the non-Portuguese speaking hordes who will descend on Rio de Janeiro next August.

It’s such an issue that a Brazilian newspaper saw fit to do an article on a company marketing a language program called “Hey Taxi”, a course designed to teach taxi drivers how to effectively communicate with foreigners in English.

The project is run by a company called Meritus Partners, and as one of the company partners explains, the Brazilian taxi driver needs help. “Since May, when I started conducting research with the cab drivers in Rio, I have learned that they have very limited understanding and awareness of their role in the hospitality sector yet they are the host of the city, the first impression of a foreign tourist.”

Fortunately, not all taxi drivers in Brazil need help. This fellow not only gets the passenger to his destination in time, he does a fantastic rendition of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.

From the book,
From the book, “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”

Every time you hold a mega-sports spectacle like the Olympic Games or the World Cup, you simply won’t have enough accommodations to handle the spike in visitors. The Tokyo Government anticipated 30,000 visitors so they asked area hotels to expand and refurbish for foreign tourists, schools and companies to open up their dormitories, and people living in Tokyo to make their homes available to foreigners.

They also had 10 passenger liners visit Japan during the Olympics. These were big ships, 5,000 to 11,000-ton ships with names like “The Brazile Maru”, “The Vladivostok”, “The Oriana”, “The Khubarovsk” and “The Empress of England”.

Ten passenger liners arrived in the ports of Tokyo and Yokohama from October 8 to 13, housing over 5,000 visitors, serving as the perfect temporary housing units. All of the ships departed Japan by October 26, two days after the completion of the Games.

According to Sports Illustrated, around 115 buses were prepared to shuttle the visitors between their floating hotels in Yokohama and the Olympic venues.

Handling the spike in 2020 is definitely a concern for planners. Think Airbnb – get that closet under the stairway ready. Could get you 20,000 yen a night.

 From the film,

From the film, “Walk, Don’t Run”, filmed on location during the Tokyo Olympics

Today, the taxi driver in Tokyo, and Japan for that matter, is polite, knowledgeable, chatty and silent as you wish, and above all else, safe. As visitors realize their first time in Tokyo, you pay for this.

But in 1964, apparently, taxi drivers had a public relations issue. Sports Illustrated described taxis in Japan in their October 19, 1964 issue as “those four-wheeled hearses operated by frustrated Kamikaze pilots”.

Remember, the Tokyo Summer Games were held only 23 years after Pearl Harbor, so I wonder how much emotional baggage was packed inside that moniker. This is typical of the patronizing tone of the American journalist at the time. “(Taxi drivers) do not speak much English, and very little Japanese for that matter. All of them were hired 30 minutes ago and have no idea how to find the Imperial Palace. But they can all find the Olympic Village. In fact, they take every pale-faced passenger there, whether he wants to go or not.” (October 2, 1964).

“Everyone who goes to Tokyo must, sooner or later, find himself in a battle of nerves with the famous Tokyo cab drivers. (Bill) Lied had his experience and he isn’t likely to forget it. ‘The Japanese taxi ride isn’t to be forgotten,’ he said. ‘The Tokyo residents call the taxi drivers the Kamikaze Squad (on the wings of God) – and so they are’,” as the Wagner College Wrestling Coach explained to The Star-Ledger (November 6, 1964).

Not all was bad. Taxis were cheap, some 30 or 40 yen per trip, so at 360 yen to the dollar, that’s 8 to 11 cents a ride. And there were, of course, conscientious taxi drivers. As is cited in the book, “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad”, some taxi drivers tried to reverse the bad PR with PR of their own, placing signs in their vehicles in English that read, “I Am Not a Kamikaze Driver.”

As for me,

From curbed.com
From curbed.com

The Hotel Okura was part of the wave of new hotels built in anticipation of the hordes of tourists that would descend on Tokyo with the 1964 Summer Games. Based on the design of a Kyoto temple, the Hotel Okura was considered one of the poshest places in Asia. If you’ve seen the 1966 Cary Grant movie, “Walk, Don’t Run”, then you saw the Hotel Okura preening in a glow of newness and modernity.

But at the age of 53, it’s apparently time for architectural euthanasia. I’ve stayed at the Hotel Okura, a couple of times, most recently two years ago. Despite the obvious care with which management maintains the hotel, it is looking its age. I suppose a face lift was considered, but the true aim is probably more rooms in a prime location. The Hotel Okura’s 2nd coming will

#9 of 11 Brazilian Airbnb's You Must Experience
#9 of 11 Brazilian Airbnb’s You Must Experience

Japan may need to learn to love Airbnb.

As the democratization of the hotel industry takes the inevitable step of your home becoming another hotel room, Rio knows it will need to consider all options to accommodate the spike in visitors during the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil.

According to ESPN, Airbnb is now the official “alternative accommodations” sponsor of the 2016 Games. That’s an amazing 20,000 spaces in peoples’ homes available to visitors.

During the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the government came up with various ideas to increase the number of rooms. One of the ideas was asking owners of private homes to make rooms available to foreign guests. A total of 1,445 beds in 588 homes were available to guests, a 20th century version of Airbnb. But, different from Airbnb, the government made sure that Japanese in charge of restaurants, hotels and shops were provided training and information on food sanitation, medical and first aid services for foreign guests, even to the owners of the private homes.

Let’s see how it goes in Rio. In the meanwhile,

Ollie the OwlTripAdvisor mascot – an owl called Ollie – has one red eye and one green eye. And like the traffic light symbols they represent, TripAdvisor and other online recommendation sites let you know through massive user content contribution which hotels are a-go, and which are not. According to Mr. Michael Stobo, the head of APAC Market Development at TripAdvisor, Japan had a record 14 million foreign tourists in 2014, and that is expected to climb to 20 million in the next five years. Now I thought that a big issue for the Olympics will be hotel capacity, since hotels in Tokyo appear to be already at high occupancy rates on average days.

But according to Mr Stobo, who spoke recently at an American Chamber of Commerce Japan event, the issue is more about inefficiency. “Lots of companies that manage properties in Japan still target mostly domestic travelers,” answered Stobo to my question. “These travel companies – like Jalan, and Rakuten- need to be more externally aware as they are so Japan focused.” “For example, Expedia may only offer 10 rooms of a given hotel to a customer, but while there is actually remaining inventory, those rooms aren’t made available to overseas customers. It’s an efficiency issue. It’s possible because they have difficulty selling in French or German, they are reluctant to make the rooms available (to non-Japanese).” Interesting! Stobo went on to say that Japan needs to continue improving the ability for the non-Japanese to navigate on their own. “It’s not just about making inventory available. Navigating the rail

Japan Times, October 8, 1964
Japan Times, October 8, 1964

Nicola Zappeti, recently released from prison, found himself in Tokyo in the late 1950s with nothing but a notion that Japan needed a pizzaria. And so he cajoled enough friends and acquaintances to provide him with funds to start an Italian restaurant, despite the fact that the only thing he knew about the restaurant business was that he liked Italian food. From nothing, Zappetti created a culinary icon, explains author and old Japan hand, Robert Whiting describes in his book, “Tokyo Underworld – The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan“.

“Nicola’s was still the attraction. It now occupied an entire newly constructed three-story concrete building with forty large tables, two blocks from its original location and a stone’s throw from the opulent new Hotel Okura, modeled after an ancient Kyoto palace and adjudged to be the finest hotel in the world. The restaurant had made Roppongi synonymous with pizza.

tokyo underworld“Although Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko had subsequently curtailed their pizza-eating excursions to concentrate on the task of producing an heir to the throne, Nicola’s remained a Who’s Who of Tokyo and international society. On any given night,

From the New York Times Magazine, February 18, 2015
From the New York Times Magazine, February 18, 2015

Hotels in Tokyo are already at record occupancy rates, well over 80%. In many cases, you simply can’t book a room in the major hotels in Tokyo. An acquaintance recently told me that he tried to book hotel rooms for July/August 2020, in anticipation of the Tokyo Olympics, but the hotels weren’t biting. By 2020, Tokyo will have an additional 1,780 more rooms available, but tourism to Japan is increasing, and the Olympics will see a huge spike in tourists. What to do? What to do? Is Airbnb the answer? (In the case of Japan, probably not….) Go to NYTimes article.