The government’s goal of drawing 10 million foreign travelers a year is in sight following a report Wednesday that the monthly visitor count in July hit a record high of just over 1 million.
While a variety of efforts are being made both in the public and private sectors to attract tourists from abroad, particularly from Southeast Asia, some challenges remain in promoting foreign tourism, such as a lack of staff capable of speaking foreign languages at hotels and tourist spots.
The Japan National Tourist Organization, a government body, said foreign visitor numbers to Japan in July jumped 18.4 percent from a year earlier to an estimated 1,003,000, topping 1 million in a month for the first time.
In addition to the growing availability of budget airlines and the weakening of the yen, visa waivers — introduced in July — for short-term travelers from Malaysia and Thailand are thought to be behind the strong rise.
With the cumulative visitor count from January to July having reached 5.96 million, a JNTO official said, “Achieving 10 million visitors is possible if this pace continues.”
The increase in foreign tourists has clearly been a boon to the economy, filling hotel rooms and pushing up revenues at retailers.
The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo said foreign guest numbers increased more than 20 percent from the same period last year between April and July, while the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo said customers buying duty-free goods hit a record high in July.
“Customers seem to think goods are undervalued due to the weak yen,” a Takashimaya representative said. “We are seeing the growth of customers not only from among the wealthy, but also from the middle class.”
In 2012, foreign tourists are estimated to have spent roughly ¥1 trillion on hotel accommodation, shopping and other activities in Japan, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
Seeing the potentially huge impact of foreign tourists on the economy, the government added a target of increasing the number of foreign tourists to 30 million per year in 2030 to its growth strategy approved by the Cabinet in June. The government estimates that achieving the goal would constitute a ¥10 trillion boost to the economy.
One major point of concern is the declining number of Chinese travelers, known for being big spenders, because of deteriorating diplomatic relations over an island dispute and top Japanese officials’ visits to Yasukuni Shrine, seen as a symbol of Japan’s militarist past.
Against such a backdrop, “there is a need to attract travelers from Southeast Asia, where a surge in overseas travel is expected due to economic growth,” a Japan Tourism Agency executive said.
In Yokohama, the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, a collection of noodle eateries, attracts 100,000 foreign tourists each year, mainly from Taiwan and Thailand.
In an attempt to draw more travelers from Southeast Asia, home to a large number of Muslims, the “museum” in July established a prayer area and also made available food items for vegetarians and Muslims.
A 54-year-old Indonesian man who was recently on a tour to Japan with his family ordered a miso ramen that does not contain pork, forbidden in Islam. “I was able to eat authentic ramen with peace of mind,” he said. Indonesia is home to the world’s largest population of Muslims.
Landmark sites outside the Tokyo metropolis have also been stepping up their efforts at luring foreign tourists.
Hokkaido has seen rapid growth in travelers from Thailand, thanks in part to Thai Airways International, which began flying nonstop from Bangkok to Sapporo in October last year.
To boost travelers from other Southeast Asian countries, the Hokkaido Tourism Organization has been working to attract travelers on company sponsored package tours from Vietnam. Hokkaido tourism officials are also promoting the prefecture, known for ski and snowboarding in winter and relatively cool weather in summer, to Indonesian travel agents and media organizations.
“Tourism is a leading industry of Hokkaido,” said Atsushi Kasai, an official with the Hokkaido department of economic affairs. “As the domestic market shrinks due to the falling birthrate, expectations are high for foreign tourists.”