An RM35.8b cartoon bear leads push for Japan tourism revival

A REGION in southwestern Japan is pinning its hopes for a post-pandemic recovery in tourism on a wide-eyed black bear called Kumamon.

The cuddly character has gained worldwide fame since he debuted as a promotional mascot for Kumamoto prefecture in 2010. Now authorities are developing bear-themed attractions across the region, betting they will spur an influx of overseas visitors when some of the world’s strictest border restrictions ease.

“We need to focus on the long-term strategy,” Shunya Waki, who heads the Kumamon Group in the regional governor’s office, said in an interview. “Now that so many people already know about the character, we want to attract them here with Kumamon and make them explore.”

The plump, red-cheeked bear has become Japan’s most successful regional mascot since he was launched to mark the opening of a new high-speed rail line for the southwestern island of Kyushu. Kumamon-themed merchandise, ranging from clothing to tote bags, stationary and face masks, has generated more than 1.1 trillion yen (RM35.87 billion) in sales over the past decade — with authorities largely allowing his image to be used for free.

This approach to intellectual property rights has helped spread his popularity around the world. Kumamoto collaborated with Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s online travel site Fliggy, with Kumamon hosting a live stream that showcased attractions. He’s been used in a hygiene-awareness campaign launched by Japan’s aid agency to help teach Indian children to wash their hands.

The bear was even tasked with promoting a new chip plant that Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co will build in Japan, with production expected to start by the end of 2024. 

Like the rest of Japan, Kumamoto’s tourism industry has been smashed by the pandemic, with most overseas visitors banned for about two years. International visitors who stayed in the prefecture, renowned for its 17th century castle, hot springs, and active volcano Mount Aso, plunged 97% in April, compared with the same month in 2019 before the pandemic hit, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.

Japan has been gradually easing virus curbs to bring back tourism. The government last week announced plans to scrap a requirement to show a negative Covid-19 result to enter the country for travelers who have received three vaccine doses. The cap on daily arrivals will rise to 50,000 from the current 20,000 from Sept. 7. Still, the country remains among the slowest in the developed world to open up again.

Kumamoto hopes Kumamon will ensure visitor numbers quickly bounce back. Inbound tourism consumption in the prefecture’s capital city reached 82.6 billion yen in 2019, with the largest number coming from China at 67,356, followed by 63,895 from Taiwan and 50,622 from Hong Kong. That’s the biggest spending since at least 2011, according to the city’s 2020 report.

Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Angela Hanlee said that while the popular mascot may increase the length of time visitors stay in the prefecture and help boost spending, better transport links would be essential to lure first-time overseas tourists from major destinations.

“It is difficult to expect first-time Japan visitors to plan their trip to destinations other than Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto,” she said. “The key for regions to draw foreign tourists is to improve air connectivity.”

Nevertheless, Kumamon-themed attractions have sprung up across the prefecture including a park next to an international cruise ship terminal with dozens of bear statues. The prefecture will subsidize the cost of developing other projects. In the capital city, events will be held frequently at the central train station, airport and other locations to give visitors the chance to interact with the mascot.

The chance to snap a selfie with the affable bear and share it on social media is likely to lure in Kumamon aficionados like Marx Didong Zhao, a 23-year-old student in Changsha, China.

“We have this culture in Chinese social media, in which people go somewhere just to take fancy pictures and share them,” said Zhao. “So if you can see Kumamon around the town, that might be a good attraction for Chinese tourists.”