With the government easing the criteria for granting individual travel visas to Chinese next month, Japan is gearing up to lure more tourists from the Middle Kingdom and make international tourism a pillar that can prop up the anemic economy.
Until now travel visas have been given out only to wealthy Chinese, but starting next month the relaxed rules will allow another 16 million households — 10 times the size of the current pool of potential travelers — to apply for a trip to Japan, the Foreign Ministry said.
The government will reportedly lower the minium annual income level to 60,000 yuan (about ¥800,000) from 250,000 yuan (¥3.34 million), which is nearly 14 times the average income in China’s urban areas. A Foreign Ministry official however declined to disclose the specific level, saying factors other than income will also be considered.
The Japan Tourism Agency aims to more than triple the number of Chinese tourists to 3.9 million in 2013 from 1.01 million last year.
“We will be actively working to increase inbound tourists with a focus on China,” the agency’s commissioner, Hiroshi Mizohata, said during a news conference May 27.
The visa deregulation figures to be a major boon to the tourism industry, considering that Chinese travelers on average spend more in Japan than any other nationality.
According to an estimate by an association of 17 Chinese and Japanese firms, including Japan Airlines Corp., relaxing the visa requirement will have an economic impact of about ¥430 billion in 2012.
China is already one of the Japanese tourism industry’s top markets, sending more than 1.01 million visitors here last year. Only South Koreans and Taiwanese arrived in bigger numbers.
The vast majority of Chinese, however, travel to Japan in group tours, which require a different kind of visa. Only 15,620 individual visas were doled out between last July and March.
Under the current rules, only wealthy residents in areas overseen by the Japanese diplomatic offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are allowed to apply for individual tourist visas through 48 authorized travel agencies.
But as income levels in China rise, Tokyo has finally decided to target the entire mainland by expanding visa-granting approval to 290 travel agencies.
Some China watchers, however, are concerned the deregulation could lead to an influx of Chinese looking to work here illegally. That was one of the reasons Japan was reluctant to issue individual visas in the first place.
But Masashi Takahashi, principal deputy director of the foreign nationals affairs division of the consular affairs bureau at the Foreign Ministry, said the individual travel visa is less likely to be used for illicit purposes compared with other types, such as the work visa and family visit visa.
Takahashi also said the ministry will keep a careful eye on developments through cooperation with the National Police Agency and the Justice Ministry.
The government decided to loosen the visa restrictions in accordance with the recent strategic policy focus on expanding the international tourism industry.
The Visit Japan campaign was launched in 2003 by the then Liberal Democratic Party of Japan-led government, and the number of foreign arrivals per year has been on an uptrend.
The current Democratic Party of Japan-led government is taking an even more aggressive approach, increasing the Visit Japan budget by about three times to ¥8.6 billion and setting a more ambitious visitor target.
In October, tourism minister Seiji Maehara raised the bar to drawing 20 million foreign tourists a year by 2016 against the previous goal of 2020.
“We have been told by the minister, senior vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries to do thorough market research when they increased the tourism budget,” Masahide Katsumata, director of inbound tourism promotion at the Tourism Agency, said during a recent interview with The Japan Times.
The keys to success will be market research, aggressive promotion in China and making tourist-related facilities more friendly to Chinese visitors, Katsumata said.
He pointed out that the needs of foreign travelers vary greatly depending on where they’re from.
“People in southern (China) and those from the northern area have different images of Japan, and their needs also differ,” he said.
For instance, people from Beijing, with its cold climate, might want to go to a hot springs or resort beach.
People from Shanghai, on the other hand, might be more interested in trendy fashion boutiques in urban areas, such as those in Tokyo, he said.
He also stressed the importance of going back to the basics and focusing on customer satisfaction. For example, efforts to make hotels friendlier by adding Chinese signs and TV channels are important, he said.
“Having even just one Chinese channel can make travelers feel comfortable, particularly if they come on a business trip,” he said.
Another important point is to increase tour guides for Chinese, he said.
The Tourism Agency is now considering easing the criteria for licensed guides so more Chinese exchange students can find jobs in this field, he said.
The agency grants the official license for interpreter-guides for various languages, but while English-speakers are in good supply “there aren’t many for Korean and Chinese, and the test is quite difficult,” Katsumata said.
According to the agency, the number of registered Chinese interpreter-guides was 1,540 as of April 2009, compared with 9,274 for English.
With the increase in Chinese tourists, the number of guides hasn’t caught up with demand, he said.
Despite all of the government’s efforts, Japan may find it difficult to attract 1.8 million Chinese visitors this year.
The number stood at about 488,000 at the end of April, and reaching the annual goal will be tough, Katsumata acknowledged.
“We need to really put forth a lot of effort to achieve the goal,” he said.
On the plus side, there is the relaxed visa criteria and the coming summer vacation, and the Shanghai World Expo could motivate Chinese to travel abroad in greater numbers, just as the Osaka Expo did for Japanese back in the 1970s.