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Zipair's budget Vancouver-Tokyo flights are nearly sold out for March

This photo shows an airplane of Japanese low-cost carrier Zipair at Narita Airport near Tokyo. The budget airline is offering a Vancouver to Tokyo flight that a tourism expert says may set a high bar for other carriers. (Kyodo News via The Associated Press - image credit)
This photo shows an airplane of Japanese low-cost carrier Zipair at Narita Airport near Tokyo. The budget airline is offering a Vancouver to Tokyo flight that a tourism expert says may set a high bar for other carriers. (Kyodo News via The Associated Press - image credit)

A low-cost carrier offering new cheap flights from Vancouver to Tokyo is turning heads among B.C. travellers, with tickets for its first month of operations nearly sold out.

Zipair announced the budget flight from Vancouver-Tokyo Narita airport on Dec. 26, offering a round trip at around $700 US ($942 Cdn) for an economy seat where larger carriers like Japan Airlines — of which Zipair is a subsidiary — and Air Canada typically charge more than double that price.

Passengers are expected to pay for other services, including food and check-in luggage. Economy seats make up most of the flight; with a few hundred dollars more, passengers can access to "full flat seats" that allow them to recline.

"Having a low-cost alternative, I think it's going to really drum up interest for inbound tourism into Japan," said David Tikkanen, head of the tourism marketing program at the B.C. Institute of Technology.

"Hopefully, [the] Japanese market, they are going to want to come and check out Vancouver as well."

Statistics from the Japan Tourism Agency show that the country's tourism sector saw a major rebound in 2023 after three years of pandemic-induced slowdown.

Around 25 million people visited Japan last year, according to preliminary figures — not far from the 31.8 million people who visited in 2019, the year the country saw the most tourists on record.

ZIPAIR Tokyo President Shingo Nishida poses for a photograph during a news conference in Tokyo, Japan March 8, 2019.
ZIPAIR Tokyo President Shingo Nishida poses for a photograph during a news conference in Tokyo, Japan March 8, 2019.

ZIPAIR Tokyo President Shingo Nishida poses for a photograph during a news conference in Tokyo on March 8, 2019. (Maki Shiraki/Reuters)

In a December statement, Zipair president Shingo Nishida said there was a "growing travel demand" among those seeking to travel between Vancouver and Tokyo.

"We sincerely look forward to welcoming customers in Canada to take advantage of our service, as this route will provide a valuable link for commercial and cultural exchange between the two countries," Nishida said.

The 'secret sauce'?

Zipair's Vancouver-Tokyo flight has generated a lot of buzz on social media since its announcement, with flights set to run three days a week starting March 13.

A look at their website shows demand for the flight is already high, with nearly all of the outbound flights from Vancouver in March booked out as of Jan. 20.

Tikkanen thinks Zipair's "secret sauce" may be its seat upgrade for the full-flat bed.

He says a comfortable, bed-like seat on a 10-hour flight, even without food or other services, would be quite a competitive offering against other carriers.

Upgrading to a full-flat bed on Zipair's Vancouver-Tokyo flight costs around a few hundred dollars more than an economy ticket on a carrier like Air Canada, according to Tikkanen.

He says he thinks other carriers could dip their toes into the budget long-haul flight space given the overwhelming interest in Zipair's offering.

"Zip has kind of stripped out everything and you're just getting the seat, which is probably what a lot of us just want," he said.

'Travel moment'

Tikkanen says Vancouver has historically had a strong tourism link with Japan since the 1980s.

"Japan's kind of having a bit of a travel moment right now," Tikkanen said, referring to the rise in visitors to Japan from Canada following the easing of pandemic restrictions. "A lot of younger people are really interested in travelling to Japan."

A man walks past the Grand Torii Gate of the world cultural heritage Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, illuminated at night as the tide comes in, in Hatsukaichi City on Miyajima Island, Hiroshima, western Japan, on Wednesday, March, 22, 2023. Hiroshima is hosting the Group of Seven Summit in 2023.
A man walks past the Grand Torii Gate of the world cultural heritage Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, illuminated at night as the tide comes in, in Hatsukaichi City on Miyajima Island, Hiroshima, western Japan, on Wednesday, March, 22, 2023. Hiroshima is hosting the Group of Seven Summit in 2023.

A man walks past the Grand Torii Gate of the world cultural heritage Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, illuminated at night as the tide comes in, in Hatsukaichi City on Miyajima Island, Hiroshima. With the uptick in travel to Japan has come concerns of overtourism. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/AP Content Services for Hiroshima Tourism Association)

He adds that Zipair's low-cost Vancouver-Tokyo route will also get a lot of interest from the Japanese diaspora in the province.

B.C. historically has a large Japanese Canadian population, with the 2021 census showing there are around 44,000 people of Japanese origin in the province.

CBC News has reached out to the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens' Association for this story.