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From Hiroshima: Bank serves needs of inbound tourists through multilingual speech translation service

In December last year, the Hatchobori Branch of Hiroshima Bank, located in the central part of Hiroshima City, opened a tourist information center geared at international visitors to Japan. The information center was established in collaboration with the Setouchi Brand Corporation, an organization aiming to promote tourism in the Setouchi area, when the branch transferred to the new location. In addition to deploying English- and French-speaking staff, the branch provides accurate multilingual speech translation services in English, Chinese, and Korean. The center promotes tourism among international visitors not only in Hiroshima, but also throughout the Setouchi area.

Hiroshima Bank Hatchobori Branch houses a tourist information center for international visitors.

Attracting international tourists to Setouchi

Hiroshima Prefecture, which is home to two world heritage sites—the Atomic Bomb Dome and the Itsukushima Shrine—is a prime tourist destination in Japan. In 2016, former US President Barack Obama visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and appealed for the abolition of nuclear weapons, an occasion that enhanced Hiroshima’s popularity abroad. On that year, the number of international tourists to Hiroshima hit the 2-million mark for the first time, around double the number 14 years ago. Walking near the Atomic Bomb Dome, one would see more foreigners than Japanese—a clear reminder of how popular Hiroshima is outside Japan.

Many international tourists come to see the Atomic Bomb Dome, a world heritage site.

The Hiroshima Bank Hatchobori Branch, which houses an information center for international tourists, is located in the central part of Hiroshima City that is lined by office buildings and shopping establishments. It is within walking distance to the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the Hiroshima Castle, and other famous tourist spots. Many international tourists pass through the area looking for places to shop and dine. The tourist information center, which has been named as ”Setouchi Information Center@ HIROSHIMA BANK,” is located near the ATM corner in the first floor inside the bank, right next to the currency exchange counter, making it easily accessible to international tourists and foreign residents coming to the bank to exchange their currencies.

”Setouchi Information Center@ HIROSHIMA BANK” inside the Hiroshima Bank Hatchobori Branch

”It’s been less than six months after the center was opened, but we are seeing an increasing number of tourists using the services of the center. The other day an elderly foreign gentleman came to consult us saying he wanted to enjoy a relaxing time at Matsuyama by himself. We proposed a two-day trip and helped him with hotel reservations. He came back a few days later to thank us for helping him,” said Ms. Yasuko Hori, a staff at the tourist information center.

Ms. Yasuko Hori, a staff at the center, explaining that they are coming up with various plans to promote tourism in the Setouchi area

The tourist information center has a comprehensive array of sightseeing pamphlets written in foreign languages for the different areas in Setouchi and even has a space exhibiting the local specialties of the region, effectively promoting the beauty of the Setouchi area among international tourists. Ms. Hori and other staff who can speak both English and French take turns in manning the center. To provide support for tourists from China, Korea, and other nations as well, the center adopted a multilingual speech translation service.

The tourist information center has sightseeing pamphlets for the seven prefectures surrounding Setouchi in different foreign languages.

Exhibit corner featuring local specialties of Setouchi

Overcoming language barriers through ICT

The multilingual speech translation service is provided by NEC. When users speak to the service device, it reads out the translation results and displays the text translations on the screen. With simple operations, the device can translate from Japanese to English, Chinese, and Korean, and vice versa. The ICT device helps breaks down language barriers and makes mutual understanding possible between tourists and staff.

The multilingual translation service is provided through a device that reads out the translation results and displays the text translations on the screen when users speak to it.

The service uses a high-precision translation engine developed by the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) to read out translation results and display them as text on the LCD screen. Also, by displaying a reverse translation of the translation results back into the input language, users can check whether the translation is correct or not. Names of places, stations, products, and other proper nouns can also be added to the device’s dictionary. The service leverages the speech-related technologies and know-how accumulated by NEC through long years of research to provide smooth translation services.

Data for 2016 indicate that 45.3% of tourists coming to Hiroshima Prefecture are from Europe and America, and if Australia and other English-speaking countries in the Pacific are included, English tourists comprise the majority of tourists to the Prefecture. Because of this, many of the tourist information centers in the city have English-speaking staff. There is a lack, however, of support for Chinese, Korean, and other languages in many of these centers. To address this issue, Setouchi Brand Corporation, which operates the tourist information center inside the Hiroshima Bank Hatchobori Branch, decided to introduce a multilingual speech translation service.

”Although it’s best to have staff who can provide support in the major languages, it’s not always easy to deploy multilingual staff on a regular basis. As the number of tourists from China and Korea are increasing throughout Japan, we decided to resort to ICT in providing support in Chinese and Korean as well,” explained Ms. Aki Sugimoto, manager (at the time of the interview) at Setouchi Brand Corporation.

Ms. Aki Sugimoto, manager at Setouchi Brand Corporation (at the time of the interview)

Taking up the challenge of creating a branch that is not typical of a bank

Putting up a tourist information center for international visitors inside a bank is not a common thing to do, even in other parts of Japan. Mr. Tomofumi Takeshima, Manager of Channel Network Planning Office of Hiroshima Bank’s Sales Management Division, gave the following explanation regarding the reason for putting up the tourist information center.

”Our environment is significantly changing due to the uptake of ICT and AI (artificial intelligence). In the midst of these changes, we took the challenge of creating a branch that is not typical of a bank. Since many international tourists come to Hiroshima, we thought that promoting the good qualities of Hiroshima and Setouchi would also be meaningful in terms of regional revitalization.”

Mr. Tomofumi Takeshima, Manager of Channel Network Planning Office of Hiroshima Bank’s Sales Management Division, talking about ”taking up the challenge of creating a branch that is not typical of a bank”

Setouchi Brand Corporation, which was commissioned by Hiroshima Bank to operate the tourist information center, is a member company of Setouchi DMO, an organization formed by stakeholders in the seven prefectures surrounding Setouchi to promote tourism destination branding of the Setouchi area. The corporation was established with investments from Hiroshima Bank and other financial institutions and business firms in the seven prefectures to revitalize the tourism industry in the Setouchi area by providing financial and business support to tourism-related business operators in the region, among other services. Therefore, the tourist information center is geared at not only providing tourist information within Hiroshima, but also to encourage tourists to visit other places in the Setouchi area as well.

Although Hiroshima Prefecture attracts many international tourists, the tourist expenditure per capita in the prefecture is lower than the national average, which is an area of concern. Despite the tendency of tourists from Europe and America to stay longer, Hiroshima has not been able to capture the demand for lodging from Western tourists. On the other hand, the ratio of Asian tourists, who have a high purchase intention, is low, preventing Hiroshima from enjoying a share of the robust consumption demand from Asian tourists. In addition, since the Setouchi area is not as popular as Hiroshima, attracting international tourist to the area has been a challenge.

”Having international tourists stay in Hiroshima, and eat and shop here, further revitalizes the local economy. And, if we can further entice them to visit the beautiful places in Setouchi, we can enhance the economy of the entire Setouchi region,” explained Mr. Takeshima. The bank is exploring new ways to support the local economy beyond financing and other typical banking services by establishing the tourist information center in collaboration with Setouchi Brand Corporation.

The multilingual speech translation service stores text translation data on NEC’s cloud platform service NEC Cloud IaaS and enables viewing the content of conversations and status of usage. For example, by identifying useful key words, such as names of places and shops frequently asked about by international tourists, and preparing directions and maps to those places in advance, providers can improve convenience for tourists. This also enables finding previously unrecognized spots that are popular among international tourists.

Ms. Sugimoto looks forward to further utilizing the functions of the multilingual speech translation service, ”We want to tap into the “real voice” of the tourists and find out what they really want and leverage that information in business, such as by developing new products and services in collaboration with the business operators in the Setouchi area. Ms. Hori, the staff at the tourist information center, also added, “Each of the prefectures have their own professional soccer teams, so we exhibit the team uniforms and hold contests to win team souvenirs. We try to come up with different ways to promote the different prefectures. It would also be a good idea to open the center to provide nighttime tourist information. We want to offer different kinds of services that other tourist information centers do not offer.”

The number of international visitors to Japan in 2017 reached around 28 million, with almost 80% coming from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea. Considering that the ratio of tourists from those four countries coming to Hiroshima Prefecture is only around 30%, there is still a large potential for attracting more tourists to the prefecture. According to a survey by the Japan Tourism Agency, many international visitors experience problems in ”communicating with staff of business establishments and facilities.” The same problem, likewise, is faced by Japanese staff serving the international visitors. Utilizing the ICT-based multilingual speech translation service to overcome language barriers and conduct business that accurately meets the needs of tourists provide significant benefits to both parties. This unique initiative of putting up a tourist information center inside a bank has the potential of serving as a major stimulus to tourism in Hiroshima and the Setouchi area.

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(Sankei Digital Sankei Biz Editorial Staff)

(February 28, 2020)

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