Hotels and ryokan in a Kyushu tourist zone are aiming to speed the area's economic recovery from a series of strong earthquakes in 2016 by earning a "Sakura Quality" certificate designed to reassure foreign visitors.
Straddling Kumamoto, Oita and Miyazaki prefectures, the Aso-Kuju tourist zone, along with other regions across Japan, has introduced the certification system to appeal to the growing number of individual travelers visiting the nation.
But while overall tourist numbers in Japan are up, the number of foreign guests in the Aso-Kuju region is said to have crashed by 30 percent in 2016 due to the quakes. The tourist zone’s foreign visitor numbers had previously been rising annually until peaking at more than 400,000 in 2015.
In 2017, fewer group visitors traveled to the area, according to the Aso Design Center, which does clerical work for the Aso-Kuju tourist zone.
"I will be happy if the certificate works as a tool to draw overseas tourists again," said an Aso Design Center official.
Sakura Quality applications from 15 accommodation facilities in the Aso-Kuju area are currently being screened in hopes of improving their international competitiveness.
Two investigators interviewed employees and checked the guest rooms, open-air bath and elsewhere at a ryokan in the Uchinomaki Onsen spa resort in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture, in mid-November.
They assessed the inn in 310 categories associated with equipment, hospitality, services and other factors, such as "whether at least 50 percent of toilets are Western-style ones for both men and women," "whether the ryokan has comfortable bedclothes" and "whether credit cards are accepted."
"I hope the screening will lead to improved services that will satisfy guests from overseas," said Kazuhiro Moriyama, 58, manager of the ryokan called Shinwaen.
The Sakura Quality qualification system of Kanko Hinshitsu Ninsho Kyokai (the tourism quality certificate association) was started based on a mechanism introduced by the Snow Country tourist zone, which straddles Niigata, Nagano and Gunma prefectures, in fiscal 2011.
The 13 tourist zones across Japan, which are supported by the government according to special legislation to urge more tourists to stay in them, are expected to introduce the Sakura Quality mechanism by next spring.
"Providing information on lodging facilities certified under the system will help tourist zones increase their brand power," said an official of the association.
In the Aso-Kuju area, six specially trained investigators surveyed the 15 hotels, ryokan, "minshuku" inns and other facilities in Aso, Oguni, Minami-Oguni and Minami-Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture, as well as Taketa, Oita Prefecture, and Takachiho, Miyazaki Prefecture, between October and early December.
After the examination by a third-party committee in late December, those facilities will be awarded the association’s certificate logo bearing one to five cherry blossom marks under the five-scale evaluation, according to association officials.
The Aso Design Center said it is planning to increase the number of hotels and inns to be certified under the system in the future.