China feud clouds tourism revival

Thais, Taiwanese seen making up for shortfall but visitor target eludes


The number of foreigners visiting Japan continues to rebound from falls following the massive earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, but Japan-China territorial tensions are casting a shadow over tourism industry hopes that the trend will continue in 2013.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, 8.36 million people visited Japan from abroad in 2012, the second-largest figure on record and up sharply from the previous year’s 6.21 million.

On the outlook for 2013, the tourism industry is paying keen attention to trends in the number of visitors from South Korea and China.

Visitors from South Korea, who account for the largest share of foreigners visiting Japan, were down some 16 percent in 2012 from 2010, before the twin natural disasters that caused the nuclear crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant. The drop was also attributed to the fall in the value of the South Korean won against the yen.

But the recent appreciation of the won contributed to a 35.2 percent jump in the number of South Korean visitors in January from a year earlier to 234,500, just short of the figure for January 2011, before the catastrophe.

But visitors from China, who account for nearly 20 percent of all foreigners visiting Japan, show no signs of increasing.

More than 200,000 people visited Japan from China in July 2012, before the bilateral dispute over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea worsened. But after tensions rose over the islets, the monthly number plummeted below 60,000 in November and December.

“We have no Chinese tourist groups staying with us,” a hotel official lamented.

The falls have continued into 2013, with the number of visitors from China logging a year-on-year plunge of 47.6 percent in January.

But the tourism industry is not necessarily pessimistic about this year. The drop in the number of visitors from China will likely be more than offset by those from Thailand, Taiwan and other economies, said an official at the major travel agency JTB Corp.

In fact, industry officials expect the number of foreign visitors in 2013 to surge to an all-time high of 8.9 million, topping the current record of 8.61 million in 2010.

The bullish sentiment reflects increases in visitors from Southeast Asian nations on the back of the region’s rapid economic growth. The number of such visitors reached new highs in 2012 and has continued to increase this year.

In particular, the number of visitors from Thailand skyrocketed some 80 percent in 2012. The Gotemba Premium Outlets shopping mall in Shizuoka Prefecture is one reason for the sharp increase in visitors, because some 15 percent of Thai tourists to Japan visit there due to successful advertising by its operator, Mitsubishi Estate Simon Co.