Project manager Lea Sudakova was interviewed by Johanna Joosep from Contact Point Estonia.
Published at http://database.centralbaltic.eu/caito-bridge-between-estonia-latvia-southern-finland-and-japan
What is common to Japan and the Baltics and what are the cultural differences? It is clear that all countries mentioned above are keen on nature and culture. How does Central Baltic Programme’s project CAITO change the readiness of Japanese tourists to visit the Baltic cluster area, will be discussed more closely with the Estonian University of Life Sciences lecturer and CAITO Project Manager Lea Sudakova, on a rainy day in Tartu.
What is the purpose of the CAITO project?
The CAITO project (Meta Cluster for Attracting the Japanese Tourism Market) aims to promote and support rural tourism companies entering the Japanese tourism market.
Our main goal is to improve the quality and marketing services for small businesses in Estonia, Latvia and Southern Finland. So far, Japanese tourists have come to our capitals and have also found some attractive places in rural areas, such as Kihnu Island in Estonia. This is all due to the membership of the UNESCO Heritage List.
Due to the distance, our country is unknown to Japan. In order to make ourselves visible, we find that we should unit with Finland and Latvia because it was known that Japanese tourists would like to visit at least one country in Europe for one voyage. In the last 20 years, Finland has done a great job in the Japanese market. We assumed that this would have worked for us, but these developments had not reached West Uusimaa. Our project is like a very long bridge, which we build over distances and different cultures.
Why the Japanese market?
The Japanese market is so far but interesting. Marketing there is expensive so that it can only be done through financial support. Our team had the experience that Chinese tourists are still a young tourist market compared to the Japanese market. There are not yet any target groups in China whose expectations would be related to rural tourism or nature tourism. Contrary to the Japanese, many of whom have visited Scandinavia and our capitals, and a large group of people who would like to go further and explore the nature and culture more deeply.
How did rural tourism become the focus?
I am the founder member of the Estonian Rural Tourism Association and one of the original developers of the development strategy, and have done several collaborative projects with rural tourism enterprises. We have genuine and interesting offers, but the average annual occupancy rate in rural accommodations is 33%. This does not allow to raise the quality and to do marketing properly. It was necessary to find a market that fits our expectations and has broader interests in nature and environmental sustainability. The near markets are exhausted.
What has been successful?
We have very good Japanese experts, partly because we failed in the first round. We were convinced that our project was necessary and decided to re-submit it in the next round. Ülari Alamets, coordinator of the Central Baltic Programme, gave us necessary advice and explained the programme’s expectations, that we should increase our marketing efforts so that we can see the visibility of the Japanese market. So we found a Japanese expert who has been working 20 years for Visit Finland and for several years for the Baltic countries. This is a genuine professional who can provide feedback on how something in Finland succeeded and behind whom is the entire tourism network in Japan.
What has been easier than expected?
We are very enthusiastic about the project. The distance from the Japanese market and the fact that they are completely unknown to us, has helped to create enthusiasm and motivate people very well. Rural tourism companies have not been able to cooperate with local tour operators operators before and now they have a connection. We have very good partnerships, both in Estonia and in Latvia.
What has been harder than expected?
In this experienced project team, we can say that difficulties for us are more of a challenge. And challenges always make you more active.
How has CAITO stood out in the Japanese market?
According to statistics, the number of overnight stays by Japanese people in the first half of this year, compared to the same period in 2017, grew by 31% in Latvia and 39% in Estonia. There are no separate statistics for Southern Finland. We believe that quite a large part of this increase is also due to the efforts of our project team and what we have done for that.
We participate annually at the JATA EXPO, Japan’s largest tourism fair, which takes place in September. Certainly, one of the measures is marketing brochures, as the Japanese tour operator wants information on paper. You might think that the tour operators can handle English, but in reality they still expect this linguistic response to be made by the bidders. Next, we have organized tours for tourists and the media and bloggers.
A great success, which we did not expect during the planning phase, is a seminar for Japanese tourism operators in Tokyo, which has been of great interest. We also participate in annual contact events for tourism operators from the Baltic States and Finland. Additionally, of course, information sheets, social media and website with a digital map of sample routes and electronic marketing materials.
Let’s talk a bit more about the target audience…
We want to move more towards small groups and small tourism operators. The target group is people who are interested in rural tourism and who are interested in local culture and the environment. If earlier the Japanese arrived in groups of Japanese travel agencies and the length of the trip was 1-2 weeks, nowadays it is usual to take short individual trips, and this is largely due to improved flight connections.
How do you reach the target audience?
Most importantly in Japan one must have a trustee. It is said that when it comes to business with the Japanese, it will take about 3 years for confidence to emerge. For Japan, it’s important that the official tourism agencies support the project from Estonian side; we are not just any project. Japanese tourism operators really like the fact that they do not only need to communicate with our tourism operators, but they can immediately contact the rural tourism industry directly.
How did the partnership develop in the project?
At least some core of the people should have worked together beforehand, so that it would not take long for the confidence to emerge. Social capital is a great asset, and we had at least 4 partners who have somehow collaborated in the past.
How is the sustainability of this project guaranteed?
All marketing and product development activities are repeated annually. In 2019, our project will end. One guarantee of sustainability is that our group has associations of rural tourism who will continue their activities in the project. We had to change the partner for Finland, but it was just for technical reasons. Currently, the city of Lohja is a partner that represents Southern Finland and they are the ones who carry on with everything in Finland. There’s also a homepage where we store our products, packages and also have an interactive map.
For product development, we have done a lot of training, but more is planned. Practically all members of the Rural Tourism have shown interest. Those who really want to move forward have a mentoring program designed for them.
One of the work packages we also have is customer journey analysis. The client’s journey, or where does the idea come from or when choosing the tourism destination, from where is information gathered, how to access destination and so on. We are aiming to remove barriers from this journey. To a large extent, problems relate with information transfer, but also to transport and accessibility. We interviewed key people and organized tourist seminars in Estonia, Latvia, and Finland. At the outset, we will come together to discuss national problems. The first forums are this fall. Latvia already has an excellent result, in spite of the presentation of the problems of the client’s journey made by the Managing Director of the Latvian Association of Rural Tourism, Asnate Ziemele. The Ministry of Transport of the Republic of Latvia has been involved with the development of tourist routes by public transport, and the presentation of these routes to the public is already on the agenda today.
For us, a comprehensive approach is important. It does not imply that the market exists, but there is no product or vice versa, the product exists, but there is no market or there is no accessibility. This way, it does not work, all the links in this chain are important.
What has CAITO enjoyed in cross-border?
Meta cluster is cross-border cooperation in our project, and as a result, we have been able to capture our micro and small businesses in order to understand the distant market. Surprisingly, we have a lot of experience to gain from Latvian partners. We thought Finland had more experience, but southern Finland is in a much more difficult situation than Estonia. The whole partnership is very equal, which would not have been the case if all of Finland was included as a partner.
Have you come across with another projects?
I recently visited Hiiumaa with the invitation of the ONE BELT project, which hosted the Asia Tourism Seminar. Their project team found they are our followers, and they can apply one and the other in their project.
What would be your recommendations for starting projects?
Look for a foreign expert who really is of a great help. The partnership should have been worked together beforehand in some aspects. It is worth taking big challenges, because in the partnership everything can be resolved.
The CAITO project has been funded due to a strong partnership, well-thought-out plan to assist Estonian, Finnish and Latvian rural tourism products in the Japanese market, which may increase the number of visitors from Japan and the resulting income. The project is being implemented by the Estonian University of Life Sciences, the Estonian Rural Tourism NGO, the Latvian Agricultural University, the Latvian Rural Tourism Association, the Laurea Applied Higher Education Institution, the LUMO, the Lohja City Government and the Ruralia Institute of Helsinki University.