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Tapping a golden market

by Setsuko Kamiya

The Chinese tourists had just one hour to shop — not a lot of time when you consider they were at the glitzy VenusFort mall in Tokyo’s fashionable Odaiba waterfront district.

The dozens of men and women poured into the mall. Soon, many found themselves in a store named Musee de Peau, which markets cosmetics and other beauty products.

As several eagerly browsed through the Shiseido-brand cosmetics, one of the women pulled up to the cashier with a shopping cart heaped with Japanese pantyhose, each bearing a price tag of ¥500 to ¥800.

Across the hall in a shop that markets DHC-brand skin-care products, others were also busy picking out items. In the end, they all bought several bottles of basic care products running ¥3,000 to ¥6,000 each. One customer rang up a bill of around ¥100,000.

“It’s very common for our Chinese customers to make purchases worth several thousand yen. They especially go for things made in Japan, because they have a lot of faith in Japanese products,” said Guo Chang Yu, one of two Chinese-speaking salesclerks at VenusFort who translated for the shoppers.

With Japanese consumers spending less and the flow of both domestic and international travelers slowing down, visitors from mainland China and their strong buying power have become star customers for the industries that cater to tourists as they struggle through the global recession.

Chinese visitors have been arriving in growing numbers partly due to the July 2009 lifting of a ban on individual tourists — provided they were in a high income bracket. Starting next month, these well-heeled Chinese will be joined by a growing number of middle-class tourists because the income conditions for granting visas will be lowered.

While it’s unlikely the number of Chinese visitors will soar right off, businesses are gearing up promotional efforts in the Chinese market and jockeying to beat out their competitors for the influx of tourist money.

Tokyo and Osaka have been the top two destinations for mainland Chinese, but Hokkaido is increasing in popularity thanks to the major success of the 2008 Chinese movie “If You Are the One.” Set in eastern Hokkaido, the love story is inducing many Chinese to take in the area’s beautiful scenery for themselves.

“We had been pushing for the government to relax the criteria for granting visas to Chinese people, so we’re really grateful about it, but it was something that simply had to be done,” said Futoshi Imai, head of Hokkaido’s international tourism bureau.

Although Taiwanese and South Korean tourists have historically been a bigger force, they have been on a decline in Hokkaido.

In 2008, the number of visitors from Taiwan was down 18 percent from the previous year to about 227,600, while South Korean arrivals fell 17.8 percent to 139,100.

By contrast, around 126,000 tourists from Hong Kong came in 2008, up 16 percent from the year before. From mainland China, 47,400 people visited Hokkaido that year, up a whopping 75 percent.

While Hokkaido is still counting up the visitor numbers for 2009, tourism officials are observing a similar trend even though its been almost two years since “If You Are the One” was a hit, Imai said.

“We no longer believe it’s just a one-time boom, and that our efforts to promote Hokkaido’s nature, snow and hot springs are paying off,” he said.

He added that Hokkaido is boosting promotional efforts in China this year, including holding a three-day event in September at the Japanese Pavilion in the Shanghai World Expo.

A month before Hokkaido makes its pitch, the hot-springs resort area of Atami is planning a “Shizuoka Week” at the Shanghai Expo. Norihiro Ogawa of the Atami Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the expected increase in Chinese visitors to Japan is a huge opportunity for the city.

While Atami is well-known in Japan, few Chinese know about it and more promotion is needed, he said.

“We have Mount Fuji, hot springs and the bullet train, which are all attractive elements to many Chinese people. We want to tell them that after shopping in Tokyo and Osaka, they can relax here in Atami,” Ogawa said.

Eight Atami geisha will be at the expo as part of the promotional activities.

To make it easier for Chinese tourists to shop and dine, more department stores, hotels, shops and restaurants are quickly moving to accept the Chinese debit card Ginren, or UnionPay in English.

According to Sumitomo Mitsui Card Company Ltd., the Japanese partner for UnionPay since 2006, about 17,300 stores and facilities across the country took the card as of the end of April.

A large number of those businesses are in major cities, but establishments in Hokkaido and Kyushu are coming on board at a rapid clip, said Eriko Tanabe, a spokeswoman for Sumitomo Mitsui Card.

On average, Chinese customers spend ¥30,000 at a time with the Ginren card, Tanabe said, adding, “Japanese these days spend less than ¥10,000 on average with their credit card; Chinese spend three times more.”

VenusFort, the second venue in Japan to accept the Chinese debit card after the Yodobashi Camera electronics chain in 2006, says the average purchase by Chinese customers with Ginren is twice the amount a Japanese customer typically forks over.

“To draw them in, we’re coming up with ways to get more Chinese to know in advance that they can use the card at VenusFort,” said Satoshi Ishikawa, general manager of the mall. “We need to move fast, before others do.”

While promotional activities continue, many in the tourist industry say local governments should work harder to install Chinese signs on streets and public transportation. At the same time, while businesses try their best to hire interpreters, the number is still not enough.

Dealing with cultural differences between Chinese and Japanese is another factor businesses are already grappling with, including things like table manners, food preferences and how to use hot springs.

But most remain optimistic such challenges will be overcome and are developing ways to please Chinese customers.

“In the end, it’s probably faster to actually experience it and learn, instead of trying to figure it out in our heads,” Imai of Hokkaido tourism said.