Tourism rebound worth millions
THEY came in waves, a virtual tourism tsunami. Then, almost overnight, they stopped.
Now, for the first time since the extraordinary boom of the 90s and noughties, Japanese travellers are fanning a new flame for Queensland in a renaissance worth almost half a billion dollars to the state's tourism industry.
More than 212,000 Japanese travellers visited Queensland last financial year, spending a combined $463 million.
The figures are the best in a decade, raising hopes of a new tourism dawn for the Land of the Rising Sun.
Back in the 1990s, Japan was the undisputed king of the Queensland tourism industry.
Fuelled by a strong Yen and a bold desire to embrace the western world, the Japanese travel market hit Queensland with a force never seen before.
Before then, the Japanese market had barely made a ripple on the Queensland tourism scene, but in 1988 the number suddenly more than doubled to crack the 100,000 mark for the first time, according to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
By 1991 the numbers had doubled again, reaching a peak of more than 462,000 in 1997 and making up more than a third of Queensland's total international visitors.
Over a 15-year golden period, millions of Japanese poured in to Queensland, and in particular the Gold Coast.
Advertising billboards and even local street signs were written in Japanese.
Local kids were forced to study Japanese at school while wags dubbed Surfers Paradise "Little Tokyo".
The Japanese owned the hotels, they owned the property developments, sponsored sports events and even owned the Gold Coast's professional baseball team, the Daikyo Dolphins, which won a national title in 1992.
Bob Brett, a former Special Air Service commando turned hotel manager, was CEO of what was then known as the Gold Coast Tourism Bureau and he well remembers the heady days when the Japanese tourism boom was at its zenith.
He visited Japan regularly with a group of Glitter Strip tourism leaders dubbed 'the Gold Coast Mafia' who negotiated holiday deals with travel agents and wholesalers as Japan went crazy for Queensland.
"It was an extraordinary time," he recalls.
"We worked very hard to get them here, but it just took off.
"We had almost half a million Japanese coming to the Gold Coast, Panasonic owned Royal Pines, the property developers were Japanese.
"We were a western destination, we were exotic, but we were the same time zone, we ticked all the boxes."
It all fed the insatiable appetite of Japanese travellers who seemingly couldn't get enough of Queensland.
Until, evidently, they could.
The Global Financial Crisis was blamed to some extent and by 2013, Queensland's Japanese visitor numbers had plummeted to 156,000 - the lowest figure for 24 years.
The market remained in the doldrums for years, even as China emerged as the bold new face of Asian tourism.
Mr Brett says there were other factors also at play.
"Australia was never really seen as a repeat destination," he says.
"We had millions of Japanese who came here, but in their mind, once they came here they felt they had ticked that one off and that was it.
"We also started having problems with tourists getting ripped off by the wholesalers and the tourists weren't getting the experience they should have been and so Australia basically fell off the map."
BACK ON TRACK
But now Japan is back in a big way. The exchange rate is again favourable towards the Japanese Yen and there is a new-found confidence and optimism in the region, helped by big-ticket events such as the rugby World Cup and next year's Tokyo Olympics.
Tourism leaders here are excited because as well as "spreading the love", it's also spreading the risk.
With a range of strong growth markets, we are less at the mercy of fluctuations in a particular economy, say China, which now makes up almost 20 per cent of Queensland's total international visitor numbers.
Queensland Tourism Minister Kate Jones, can recall the last Japanese tourism boom, even though she herself was still a schoolgirl.
"Growing up in Queensland, all of us remember the height of Japanese tourism in the nineties," she says.
"It's great for our industry that we're seeing a resurgence in the Japanese market.
"For years we've worked hard to grow Japanese tourist numbers to our state. We know Japanese guests stay longer and spend more when they visit Queensland.
"That's why it's important to have a strong presence in this market."
Tourism and Events Queensland CEO Leanne Coddington says Japan was at the forefront of efforts to grow the state's tourism industry.
"Japan has always been an important market to Queensland and a market we have targeted because of its potential to deliver above-average growth," she explains.
"We have seen the results of that work in the past few years, with a good three-year growth trend coming out of Japan and direct flights connecting to Brisbane, Cairns and the Gold Coast ensuring the dispersal of visitors right across the state.
"Our research shows that Japanese travellers rate Queensland as their top Australian destination because they are looking for good food, cultural experiences and natural beauty - all of which they find in abundance right here in Queensland."
Brisbane largely missed out on the last Japanese boom, but the River City is better positioned to capitalise this time around, according to Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner.
"The new Virgin Australia daily service from Tokyo's Haneda airport to Brisbane starting next March will drive the growth in visitors to Brisbane, which has a flow-on effect for our small businesses, hotel and resorts and the retail and hospitality sectors," he says.
"This is a great opportunity for Brisbane to exponentially grow our share of this vital tourism market."
Monica Chien is a business lecturer at the University of Queensland specialising in consumer behaviour and the Japanese market.
She sees a number of ingredients which have combined to create ideal conditions for a Japanese comeback.
The Japanese government, increasingly conscious of the hardworking population's mental health, is actively encouraging people to take more holidays.
The preference, at least economically speaking, would be for them to holiday domestically, but Dr Chien says many are turning their attention overseas and particularly towards Australia, especially with a calendar that fortuitously places a number of public holidays close together several times a year.
"People in Australia might go overseas for a month, but people in Japan would rarely do that," she says.
"But with 'Golden Week' in the Japanese spring, there are six or seven days of holidays, more now since they celebrated a new emperor (Naruhito who took the throne in May) and it has given them a chance to take an extended holiday, which is still very rare in Japanese culture.
"So they have 10 days, where do they go? Australia is a perfect fit.
"It's an overnight flight, it's very convenient."
Safety is another issue making Australia more appealing.
"There's the fear of terrorism in Europe, gun violence in the United States - Australia has a much safer image," says Dr Chien.
She also says Queensland has left behind its redneck reputation of the 90s when a certain politician moaned that we were in danger of being 'swamped by Asians'.
"Queensland is certainly now more sophisticated than it was," she says.
"There are a lot of sophisticated experiences and brands and the Japanese love that.
"It's not just about kangaroos and koalas and throwing another shrimp on the barbie."