Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday launched a key advisory panel to draw up a midterm program to increase the number of people visiting Japan.
The body is considering raising the current target of 20 million annual foreign arrivals in 2020. A high-ranking government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, earlier indicated the target could be raised to 30 million a year or higher.
The panel, chaired by Abe and consisting of 10 Cabinet ministers and seven outside advisers, has been tasked with drawing up a new tourism promotion policy by the end of next March.
Among the outside advisers are Shinichi Inoue, CEO of Peach Aviation Ltd.; Mayumi Oda, an executive manager of the traditional hotel Kagaya in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture; Koji Karaike, chairman of Kyushu Railway Co. (JR Kyushu); and David Atkinson, president at Konishi Decorative Arts and Crafts Co.
Thanks partly to the depreciation of the yen’s value, the number of foreign tourists in Japan has increased far more rapidly than the government expected.
The number of foreign arrivals totaled 14.5 million for the January-September period this year, up 48.8 percent from the same period last year and already exceeding the 13.4 million total for all of 2014.
“Our target was 20 million foreign visitors (a year), but that goal is certainly within range,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said during his daily news conference after the panel’s first meeting in the prime minister’s office.
“We need to set a new target with an eye for the new age” of Japan’s inbound tourism, Suga said.
Abe has trumpeted an ambitious — and possibly unrealistic — policy goal of boosting Japan’s gross domestic product by 20 percent to ¥600 trillion in 2020.
Promotion of inbound tourism is to “play an extremely important role” in achieving that ¥600 trillion GDP target, Suga said.
During Monday’s meeting, Abe expressed his “strong intention” to “do everything he can do (to reach the goal),” according to Suga.
Promotion of inbound tourism is among Suga’s pet policies. Considered by many to be Abe’s right-hand man, he is known to brag about having eased visa conditions for people from Southeast Asian countries by overriding the concerns of police and immigration bureaucrats regarding a possible increase in overstays and other crimes by foreign visitors.
Suga now chairs a working group of government officials that will hammer out the details of the policy proposals on which the panel’s recommendations are likely to be largely based.
In 2014, foreign tourists spent about ¥2.3 trillion in Japan, about 40 percent more than the year before, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
Visitors from China accounted for 27.5 percent of the spending, followed by those from Taiwan with 17.5 percent, South Korea with 10.3 percent, United States with 7.3 percent, Hong Kong with 6.8 percent and Thailand with 4.7 percent.
Government officials maintain there should be even more room for growth. Japan is ranked only 22nd in the world in terms of the number of foreign arrivals, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
France ranked top in the world with 83.7 million, followed by the U.S. with 74.8 million and Spain with 65 million a year.
Japan was ranked seventh even in Asia the same year, as China was No. 1 in the region with 55.6 million, followed by Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Macau and South Korea.
Unlike European countries, Japan is surrounded by oceans, which has long been considered a key factor keeping the number of foreign tourists lower than that of many other countries.