Tourists pose for a selfie in front of the Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto. (Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg)

Tourists Are Swapping Their Japan Guide Books for Instagram

(Bloomberg) -- Tourism is booming in Japan, but a growing number of visitors are ditching their guidebooks for an app better known for celebrity snapshots and images of food: Instagram.

The social photo-sharing service is proving to be especially popular among those seeking destinations off the beaten track. Nagato, located on the southern tip of the main island of Honshu, saw more than 1 million visitors in 2017, a 36-fold increase in three years. After CNN profiled the town as one of “Japan’s 31 most beautiful places,” postings of the local shrine started to flood Instagram.

Tourists Are Swapping Their Japan Guide Books for Instagram

The archipelago has proven to be one of Instagram’s most active markets, with the number of users more than doubling to more than 20 million in the past two years. People are increasingly turning to the Facebook Inc.-owned photo-sharing platform to decide what to eat, wear and travel. There’s even a phrase, “Insta-bae,” or “Instagram-worthy,” that entered the Japanese lexicon to become the country’s top buzzword last year.

“Instagram is different from other social media because users are the ones taking the initiative to post and spread pictures, not the local municipalities,” says Kazukiyo Yonemura of Full Speed Inc., a marketing firm.

City officials in Nagato said they were astonished to see people of all ages visiting the mountains to get a shot of its shrine. The flood of visitors soon led to four-hour long traffic jams. “We widened roads, built toilets and increased parking from 24 to more than 100 spaces this April," said Erika Watanabe of Nagato city’s tourism division.

And there were clear signs that many of the visitors were coming from overseas. The shrine found 27 foreign currencies in its offertory box. Foreign travelers are turning to Instagram instead of guidebooks to seek out experiences, according to Koki Miyashita of Samurai Meetups, a non-profit organization that specializes in Japan’s inbound industry. “The style of traveling is changing as they want their trip to be original," he said.

Instagram collaborated with Japan’s National Tourism Organization last year, introducing a new hashtag, #UnknownJapan, which led to more than 5 million foreign visitors sharing posts, according to Ryoko Ichimura, a spokeswoman for Instagram in Japan.

According to the Japan Tourism Agency, foreign tourist spending has quadrupled since 2010, to an average 150,000 yen per person. The number of visitors from abroad reached a record last year, at 28.7 million people. That number is projected by the government to increase with the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

At least one Nagato native who’s happy with the town’s sudden popularity: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose family hails from the city. “Demand for travel is shifting from shopping to experiences, and this is great opportunity for local regions," he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.