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Mass. rolls out welcome mat for Japan

With nonstop flights between Boston and Tokyo set to start, businesses gear up to attract Japanese tourists — and their money

Frank DePasquale, owner of Mare Oyster Bar, got tips on how to attract Japanese tourists from Mamiko Maki.

Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe

Frank DePasquale, owner of Mare Oyster Bar, got tips on how to attract Japanese tourists from Mamiko Maki.

A North End oyster bar is printing menus in Japanese. The group sales manager from the naval museum in Fall River met with a Japanese tour operator to promote the museum’s Pearl Harbor exhibit. At the Westin Copley Place hotel, green tea and electrical adapters for Japanese appliances are available upon request.

With Japan Airlines’ upcoming nonstop flight from Tokyo making it easier for Japanese travelers to get to Boston, tourism operators around New England are gearing up to attract them. Boston tourism officials project the nonstop service, which begins in three weeks, will increase the number of Japanese tourists by 20 percent this year and - with help from a US ad campaign courting foreign travelers - double it by 2014.

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Such an increase could provide a significant boost to the local economy and tourism industry. Japanese travelers are the biggest spenders among international visitors tracked by local tourism officials, shelling out $1,600 per person compared to an average of $1,300 for all international tourists. About 70,000 Japanese tourists spent $129 million in Massachusetts in 2010, making Japan the state’s fourth-largest international tourism market.

“This is a huge, huge deal,’’ Betsy Wall, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism, said of the new Boston-Tokyo flight. In 2008, she noted, airlines added nonstop flights to Boston from Munich and Amsterdam, a popular departure point for Germans, and German tourism jumped 40 percent.

If the number of Japanese visitors grows as expected this year, it could generate an additional $22 million in spending in the area. The visitor industry generates more than $8 billion a year in direct spending in Boston and Cambridge, supporting more than 35,000 jobs.

The prospect of a surge in Japanese tourism has many local businesses boning up on the culture, customs, and tastes of Japan. At Total Travel & Excursions Inc. in Cambridge, which specializes in tours for groups visiting from Japan, phones are ringing off the hook as businesses try to get the attention of owner Mamiko Maki and seek her advice on how to attract and cater to Japanese visitors.

Among her tips to restaurateurs: create menus with half portions. Japanese people generally don’t eat as much as Americans, she tells them, and don’t like to waste food. “The Japanese market is very particular,’’ Maki said.

‘This is the most comprehensive statewide sales and marketing campaign focused on one country that I have ever seen.’

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At the Westin Copley Place, front desk staff has undergonetraining on Japanese etiquette, and employees who speak Japanese are scheduled throughout the day. Information about the hotel has been printed in Japanese; miso soup, tofu, and edamame were added to the restaurant and room service menu. The Westin Copley Place and the three other Starwood Hotels in Boston (the Sheraton, W, and Westin Waterfront) say they have already seen a significant increase in advance bookings from Japanese travelers.

“I think [the flight is] going to bring a new level of business into a market that we’ve never been able to tap into,’’ said Scott Alpert, area director of sales and marketing for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.

The Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau recently talked to Duck Tours management about having enough translators lined up for Japanese tour groups who know how to interpret, or omit, the drivers’ Boston jokes. The agency also worked with three film crews making promotional films about Boston to air in Japan and developed a Boston guidebook written in Japanese.

Larry Meehan, the vice president of tourism sales at the visitors bureau, is planning to meet with hotel concierges and local visitors groups to teach them how to bow and say hello - “Konichiwa’’ - in Japanese.

“This is the most comprehensive statewide sales and marketing campaign focused on one country that I have ever seen,’’ said Patrick Moscaritolo, the visitors bureau president.

The Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism has overseen efforts to increase the state’s appeal to Japanese visitors, including organizing a trip to Tokyo for local businesses to meet tour operators and hiring marketing representative Shoko Hirao, a native of Japan who lives in Wayland, to help tap the Japanese market.

Hirao recently conducted a crash course on Japanese tourists for about 75 visitor organizations, cruise operators, and marketing directors. One out of every three people in Japan will soon be over the age of 60, she told them in a webinar, but they’re incredibly active, preferring museum and college visits to lying on the beach.

“Unlike European visitors, Japanese visitors don’t like to relax,’’ Hirao said.

Some bed and breakfast owners were concerned to learn that Japanese travelers - even newlyweds - don’t like to sleep in the same bed. At the Palmer House Inn in Falmouth, only three of the inn’s 17 rooms have separate beds. With the economy still sluggish, owners Patricia and Bill O’Connell, aren’t sure it’s worth the money to replace a queen bed with two twins, but that might change.

“If we see that Falmouth is attracting quite a number of Japanese, maybe next winter we’d make some adjustments,’’ Patricia O’Connell said.

But other business owners are going after the Japanese market aggressively.

In Pittsfield, Jim Czarnecki plans to team his guided outdoor excursion business, Taking Shape, with Western Massachusetts resorts and museums to pitch vacation packages to Japanese tour operators. In Springfield, the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum is emphasizing its substantial collection of Asian decorative art and weapons.

Brad King, executive director of Battleship Cove in Fall River, the home of several retired US Navy ships, wasn’t sure the museum’s outdoor Pearl Harbor exhibit would be a selling point for Japanese tourists. But after learning about their fascination with the World War II attack, he plans to work with other local attractions to promote the exhibit - which includes special effects of bullets strafing the water.

In Boston, with more seafood-loving Japanese diners on the horizon, restaurateur Frank De Pasquale, is hoping the expanded selection of oysters, crab, and other shellfish at his Mare Oyster Bar in the North End will further increase the number of the Japanese diners, who’ve been coming to the restaurant in greater numbers. He has created a menu written in Japanese and is looking for an outdoor mat or sign that says “welcome’’ in Japanese.

De Pasquale is even considering an ad in the Japan Airlines magazine and putting ads in Japanese on top of cabs coming from Logan Airport.

“Knowing they’re coming, Mare Oyster Bar is definitely gearing toward this particular market,’’ he said. “They know how to eat.’’

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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