Insensitivity makes waves with Japanese tourists

BEFORE Noriko Mochizuki travelled to Australia, she had heard about koalas, kangaroos, beaches, and strange men in cars who killed backpackers.

By the time she returns home to Tokyo, the 25-year-old will tell her friends that - the infamous Ivan Milat backpacker murders aside - Australians are relaxed, kind and sometimes very rude.

''Sometimes you go to buy something at a coffee shop and they don't want to understand or they just ignore you,'' she said during a surfing lesson with Surfs Up near Cronulla.

''The customer service is much, much better in Japan.''

Ms Mochizuki, from Tokyo, is one of a dwindling breed: the Japanese tourist Down Under.

While much has been made of the economic reasons behind their declining numbers, a study suggests condescending behaviour towards non-English speaking travellers has contributed.

The two-year research found there was a perception among Japanese visitors that racism pervades parts of Australia's tourism industry, helping to account for Tourism Australia's figures, which showed their number fell to 351,000 last year - less than half the 1997 level of 841,000.

The authors of the study, Macquarie University academics Ingrid Piller and Kimie Takahashi, said although Australia was still considered an attractive destination by Japanese tourists, the ''monolingual mindset'' at airports, hotels, train stations and restaurants was a strong deterrent.

''A lot of commentators have talked about Japan's economic problems, the outbreak of swine flu, the decline in flights and overseas travel generally,'' said Dr Takahashi, an applied linguistics expert. ''But no one talks about what happens to the tourists here that might be affecting the image of Australia back in Japan.''

Between October 2007 and last year, Professor Piller and Dr Takahashi interviewed Japanese baby boomer tourists, service providers in both countries, Japanese flight attendants, and tourism experts in Japan. They will publish their findings in The International Journal of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education.

''The Japanese people we interviewed loved it here. They loved the urban planning and the landscape and said Australia had much to offer tourists,'' Dr Takahashi said. ''But at the same time, there was a very strong sense that Australia has a closed, monolingual mindset.''

Participants cited the scarcity of foreign-language information or support in major public places as a reason for feeling that they were not always welcome.

''Particularly bad was at the airport, where they felt they were treated like criminals,'' Dr Takahashi said. ''They're elderly and have limited English, but at the same time they're not dumb. So they know when airport staff are raising their voices and treating them like idiots.''

Haruo Orito, a director of the Japan-Australia Tourism Foundation and a professor of tourism at Tamagawa University, said foreign language-friendly destinations such as Korea, Bali and Hawaii were taking Japanese tourists from Australia.

But Sydney-based Noriko Sato, who organises surfing tours for Japanese visitors through Dream Tube Australia, said places such as Hawaii and Bali were simply cheaper. ''Everything's expensive now, so they just go to Hawaii,'' she said.

Professor Orito said Tourism Australia had done nothing to help itself with the disastrous 'So where the bloody hell are you?' advertising blitz, "whose meaning was lost on the Japanese".

"The campaign last year based on the movie Australia was an even bigger flop."

The problem has been compounded by a series of misguided tourism campaigns, which culminated last year in the ''Aussie Oji" competition, designed to lure Japanese women to Australia to look for their oji, or prince - a message a Japanese tourism expert described as "insensitive''.

One Japanese tourism operator in the Gold Coast said there was no point offering constructive criticism to the Australian tourism industry "because they ignore our complaints about the treatment of tourists. Nothing is going to change."

Japanese tourists made up the second-largest group of travellers to Australia until 2002, but were ranked fifth last year. Arrivals are forecast to fall a further 5.5 per cent this year.

Tourism Australia said the reason for the decrease was ''predominantly economic''.