For the first time ever in the nation’s history, Japan hosted an academy on LGBTQ tourism. Organized by ITB Berlin — Internationale Tourismus-Börse Berlin, the world’s largest tourism trade fair — 130 Japanese professionals attended the half-day Tokyo event, which included workshops on gay and lesbian travel and globally expanding the LGBTQ Japan tourism market.
The island nation of Japan finds itself at an interesting crossroads. It’s far more LGBTQ-friendly than some other Asian countries like China and Indonesia, but it hasn’t yet legalized same-sex marriage or passed widespread anti-discrimination protections.
Nevertheless, it has nearly zero instances of anti-LGBTQ violence, its politicians rarely vocalize anti-LGBTQ sentiment (even when they disagree with issues like same-sex marriage) and its regional government and businesses have increasingly recognized the importance of same-sex unions and LGBTQ rights.
As such, LGBTQ tourists and LGBTQ-friendly businesses could help make the nation more open to queer rights in general.
Japan is already ripe for LGBTQ tourism to help shift the local culture
“I’ve always felt that LGBTQ visitors are in some way, intended or not, ambassadors when visiting other countries,” says Thomas E. Roth, President of Community Marketing, Inc. (CMI). He presented during the academy workshops.
“Negative stereotypes and assumptions can be melted away through authentic, respectful interaction with local communities,” he says.
About 10 years ago, Roth’s company conducted a research study for the Japan National Tourism Office and found Japan to be among the top three most-visited Asian destinations among American LGBTQ people (along with Thailand and Taiwan).
If the academy is any indication, Japanese businesses are ready to welcome LGBTQ travelers. ITB Berlin organized the workshops with the Kyoto Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Hotel Granvia Kyoto (the first hotel in Japan to officially announce its hosting of same-sex weddings), The Capitol Hotel Tokyu as well as the Japanese publisher Ohta Publications, All Nippon Airways and LGBTQ publications Out Japan and Out Asia Travel.
Its other sponsors included the Japan Association of Travel Agents, the Japan Hotel Association Kyoto Branch and IGLTA, the world’s leading global travel network dedicated to connecting and educating LGBT travelers.
Sean Howell — President of Hornet, the world’s premier gay social network and parent company of this site — presented on the huge scale of gay audiences globally interested in travel and the ability to target them using latest expert trends on reaching mobile audiences.
Howell also shared insights from the 2014 Sochi Olympics and Rio World Cup, sharing stats about the volume of LGBT tourists attending these events — the increase was so great that it nearly crashed Hornet’s servers.
“The 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games present as opportunity to move gay rights forward as Japan moves to present itself globally,” Howell says.
The Olympics and other pro-LGBTQ businesses could positively influence other Japanese communities that have never focused on LGBTQ people before.
How LGBTQ Japan tourism could positively influence civil rights
The Academy focused largely on Tokyo and Kyoto as the two largest possible growth areas for the nation’s fledgling LGBTQ tourist industry.
Thomas Bömkes — LGBTQ consultant partner for ITB Berlin, ITB Asia and the ITB Academy — estimates that Tokyo, Japan’s capital city, has up to 500 or 600 queer bars, making it a natural hub for LGBTQ travelers into Japan as well as a huge outbound market for LGBTQ travelers already living in Japan.
Meanwhile, Bömkes says, Kyoto has proved a popular LGBTQ travel destination, with the old imperial city and lots of sightseeing activities reflecting Japan’s history and culture.
“When you see Japan’s history as a closed country and closed society as it was 100 years ago,” Bömkes says, “it is not difficult to understand that a country like this needs some time to change its laws and social understandings.”
“But,” he adds, “as we have seen at the ITB events in Japan, there’s a lot of interest in stepping into this market.”
He figures that if the Japanese tourism industry sees the value of the LGBTQ market, other parts of Japanese society may start working to change queer rights in Japan.
And he’s correct. A January 2016 study of 1,964 LGBTQ professionals and 10,242 non-LGBTQ professionals in 10 countries around the world found that pro-LGBTQ businesses can help shift local culture: First, by implementing and enforcing protective policies and LGBTQ-supportive measures on corporate campuses; and then by supporting local LGBT activists and lobbying local legislators to enact protective laws.
Featured image by Nikada via iStock