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Foreign tourism emerges as bright spot amid Japan’s dim economic prospects

by

Staff Writer

With few positive signs of recovery for Japan’s slumping economy, foreign tourism remains a sole ray of hope, and tourism authorities, local governments, industry players as well as retailers are eagerly awaiting another possibly record-breaking surge in Chinese tourists during next month’s Chinese New Year holiday.

Though economists say a tourism boom alone won’t bail the country out of its economic plight, they do see it having a positive impact.

Koichi Haji, managing director of NLI Research Institute, says the “effect in buoying economic sentiment is big.”

Foreign nationals visiting areas outside the capital are also likely to play a key role in revitalizing local economies, one of the key aspects of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policy, said Dai-ichi Life Research Institute Chief Economist Hideo Kumano.

But the current focus on tourism derives mostly from its sheer pace of growth.

From January last year to November, the number of arrivals surged by about 48 percent from the same period a year earlier to an estimated 18 million, according to the government-affiliated Japan National Tourism Organization. A year before that, the visitor count jumped 29 percent.

The latest figure brings the government tantalizingly close to achieving its annual 20 million target set for 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics.

Among the flood of arrivals Chinese tourists stand out as the leader. While territorial and historical issues had long been a thorn in the side of bilateral ties, Chinese tourists continue to visit Japan in numbers that outpace other nationalities in size and growth.

JNTO statistics show over 4.6 million Chinese visited Japan from January last year to November, up 109 percent year-on-year.

In the most recent JNTO figures for November, other top visitors were all from East Asia, including South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, which combined to represent nearly 70 percent of all arrivals that month. Visitors from each of these areas showed double-digit growth from a year ago in the January to November period.

But, with the sole exception of Russia, visitors from the top 20 countries of origin all grew by double-digits in the first 11 months of last year. The Russian decrease, according to the JNTO, was due to “slumping tourism demand.”

Experts attribute the visitor surge to multiple factors. Aside from interest in Japan, including anything from anime, pop idols, food, technology and Buddhism and Shinto culture, they often cite several other factors. These include the weak yen, which has made prices cheaper for visitors, relaxed visa conditions for Chinese and Southeast Asians and a growth of the middle class in the visitors’ countries of origin.

Visitor destinations vary depending on where they are from, according to Akiko Mitsuhashi, a senior consultant with the Japan Tourism Marketing Co.

“For example, Spain is so far away from Japan, and they see Japan as an exotic Eastern country, so many of them visit representative locations, such as (Tokyo’s) Asakusa and Kyoto, because they like temples and shrines,” Mitsuhashi said.

By contrast, other Asians who live closer to Japan see Japanese things on a daily basis and may even have Japanese friends at home, thanks in part to the local presence of Japanese firms.

“So what they want to do is experience real things by visiting Japan,” Mitsuhashi said. “They want to eat real ramen in Tokyo, for example.”

Technology-themed facilities and attractions, including the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Mega Web showroom, both in Tokyo’s Odaiba district, are also popular with Asians.

Among these visitors, Chinese tourists are notable in that their spending in Japan is significant and is focused primarily on shopping.

About 40 percent of these tourists spend ¥100,000 to ¥400,000 during their visit, according to an October Nomura Research Institute report, which also says this spending is relatively unrelated to income levels.

While Chinese represented 26.5 percent of all visitors from January to September last year, their spending represented 45.4 percent, totaling over ¥1 trillion.

Last year, Chinese tourists and their bakugai (“explosive buying”) shopping sprees made headlines. Images of legions of visitors emerging from tour buses near large retailers and returning laden with bags and boxes of cosmetics, electronics and apparel were splashed across newspapers and TV news.

Ultimately, bakugai was even named as a top buzzword for 2015.

It was this surge in inbound tourism that prompted the government to introduce a range of measures making visits easier in an effort to support the market’s further growth.

The Japan Tourism Agency on Dec. 21 launched a month-long Japan Mobile Week campaign with the aim of promoting the use of SIM cards and mobile Wi-Fi routers that enable the use of wireless Internet connection services in Japan.

Officials think their use remains limited and hope the campaign will facilitate wider Internet use in rural locations where public Wi-Fi spots are currently unavailable.

“The shortage of Wi-Fi spots was the most frequent complaint from inbound tourists in a survey several years ago, which prompted the introduction of (more) Wi-Fi spots, although Japan still trails many countries,” Japan Tourism Marketing Co.’s Mitsuhashi said.

She says improvement in Wi-Fi availability is important for promotion of tourism as travelers these days rely heavily on information from social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter.

An increasing number of such tourists are visiting Japan for their second time, third time or more, and prefer to plan their itinerary based on such information, as opposed to joining package tours.

Many in turn report their experiences in Japan with photos and video on the same online services. “They are not using the Net only to obtain information — they want to send information as well,” Mitsuhashi said.

Now, as the Chinese New Year holiday approaches next month, businesses have come out with a range of strategies to attract not only Chinese but also Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, South Koreans, Singaporeans and Vietnamese, whose respective traditional New Year holidays center around the weekend of Feb. 7.

The Odakyu Electric Railway Co., which has stops in traditionally popular spots including the ancient capital of Kamakura and the hot spring town of Hakone, both in Kanagawa Prefecture, is planning a promotional campaign targeting foreign visitors.

Odakyu hopes to lure them to these destinations with freebies, opening a special souvenir shop and holding cultural events, as well as a Web travel guide (jtim.es/Xax3F) available in English, Chinese and Korean.

Elsewhere, an unfortunate set of circumstances saw Saga Prefecture ranked at the top of a list of “prefectures that you will probably never visit for the rest of your life.”

Respondents to a poll, conducted in Japanese of 500 Internet users last March for the Freshers Web magazine, cited the prefecture’s inconvenient location and lack of notable features as reasons for the low ranking.

But despite this disappointing score, foresight by the prefectural government and local tourism insiders to lure visitors from abroad has borne fruit in the form of a significant increase of Thai tourists.

The secret, according to one local tourism official, was a strategy to lure film producers in target countries to shoot films in the prefecture, to which Thais responded. Two feature films and a serial aired over the Internet were shot, with all proving hits in 2014 and 2015.

Coupled with tourism promotion efforts, the number of Thai tourists jumped nearly tenfold to about 3,000 in the first 11 months of 2015, compared with previous annual figures of some 300 before the filming strategy, said Yasuko Kiyotake, a senior Saga Prefectural Tourism Federation official.

Now, Saga officials intend to build on their successes in Thailand.

“Saga’s Governor (Yoshinori Yamaguchi) will visit Bangkok this February to promote Japan tourism, and we’ll follow up on his efforts,” Kiyotake said.

Most of the prefecture’s hotels are equipped with Wi-Fi Internet connections available free of charge, and the tourism federation provides all-day year-round call service in multiple languages.

Saga Prefecture’s tongue-in-cheek promotional video posting (jtim.es/XaHlc) has also gone viral, with a total of 1.92 million hits.

  • http://www.an-chan.net/ Antoine B.

    Quite a boom indeed, but the million-dollar question is: when will it slow down…
    Several important factors: weakening of the Yuan (quite fast these days), saturation of the hotels… And maybe at some point, some negative reactions by Japanese people if the flow stays high (already seeing some signs of discontent)

    • KenjiAd

      As a Japanese guy living in China, my opinion is probably biased, but I believe Chinese people vising Japan will decrease only under two situations.

      A) Something dramatic, like second Fukushima, war, happens.

      B) Chinese government starts cracking down on “made-in-Japan” counterfeiters, those who produce low-quality fakes that are so wide-spread here. You basically can’t trust what the label says in China. Seriously. That’s why people go to Japan to shop (or go to America for that matter).

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Japan is a fantastic destination for tourism and credit to the national tourism authorities for giving the economy a boost like this. 4 key pain points remain: availability of free wifi, the awful ATM situation (why oh why can they not rectify this?!?), too much “negative” English (don’t do this, don’t do that – but very little information in English and Chinese on special offers and discounts which seem to be exclusively available only in Japanese) and lack of credit card acceptance in rural areas – combined with the ATM situation, this is a big pain too.

    • Firas Kraïem

      People asking for “free wifi” sound like spoiled kids with a huge sense of entitlement to me. If you want a 24/7 Internet connection, pay for it, there are plenty of solutions available. And as for ATMs: post offices and 7-Eleven stores are everywhere. Little information in English? Too bad, this is Japan, Japanese is the language.

      • R0ninX3ph

        ATMs are available yes, but in most countries you can access an ATM 24 hours a day, that is not the case in Japan, and people coming from non-cash based countries wouldn’t know this.

        “Little information in English?” Their point wasn’t about the amount of information itself, rather than all the information in foreign languages tends to be focused on “Don’t do this, don’t do that”, it is incredibly negative and treats foreign tourists like children who don’t know how to behave instead of promoting good things for them.

      • Blair

        “all the information in foreign languages tend to be focused on “Don’t do this, Don’t do that” ” Really?

      • R0ninX3ph

        I was simply replying to their complaint about the original person who posted.

        They took their comment and twisted it to make it sound like something else. That is all.

      • Blair

        OK, because the only English signs I’ve ever seen of the “don’t do…” variety are the standard “No smoking, photographs etc”, along with the”please refrain from ~ing” type. I have seen signs on bath etiquette in fairly crude English, but as you’ve indicated re your ATM gripe, people coming from countries without such customs wouldn’t know this, so it’s hardly as though they’re being “treated like children”…Feeling offended and needing to be mollified over such crude signs, now that would be childish

      • Stewart Dorward

        On that I agree. I took a Malaysian friend to an onsen this weekend and he was politely told off for putting his towel in the water. He thanked the man who had told him saying that he didnt know Japanese culture and was happy to be corrected. Though this conversation took place in Chinese because my friend doesnt speak any Japanese.

      • Blair

        Most larger scale onsen resorts are staffed by Chinese nationals

      • Blair

        Most larger scale onsen resorts are staffed by Chinese nationals

      • Stewart Dorward

        He was a Japanese old guy – customer like us. This was a small local place in the mountains.

      • Blair

        Cool…props to the guy for his language skills

      • Stewart Dorward

        On that I agree. I took a Malaysian friend to an onsen this weekend and he was politely told off for putting his towel in the water. He thanked the man who had told him saying that he didnt know Japanese culture and was happy to be corrected. Though this conversation took place in Chinese because my friend doesnt speak any Japanese.

      • R0ninX3ph

        I agree, I was just trying to expand and explain what I assume the original poster was saying.

      • R0ninX3ph

        I agree, I was just trying to expand and explain what I assume the original poster was saying.

      • R0ninX3ph

        I agree, I was just trying to expand and explain what I assume the original poster was saying.

      • Stewart Dorward

        Yes – I think that the fact that there are ATMs in convenience stores should be advertised better – these are open 24/7.

      • Stewart Dorward

        Indeed – this is Japan but if you want their money cater to their needs.

      • Blair

        or better yet…don’t give in to the grey sludge variety of “sameaseverywhereelse” and rather provide a cultural experience that is, well, cultural

      • Stewart Dorward

        Two shops – one “gives a full cultural experience” and only speaks Japanese, wont take foreign credit cards or help with tax refunds to tourists – the other employs a Chinese student from a local university as a part time employee, takes all credit cards and know how to give tax refunds. Which gets the business?

      • Blair

        It depends…if the two happen to be restaurants and one is a sushi restaurant fully staffed by Japanese including the licensed sushi chef behind the counter and the other is a sushi restaurant owned and operated by Chinese who take foreign credit cards and offer service in Mandarin…I think that most Chinese who came all the way to Japan to get authentic sushi would opt for the “hassle” of ordering in Japanese…

      • Stewart Dorward

        Indeed – I operate a bed and breakfast in the mountains towards Chichibu and we do not expect the local businesses to provide anything in English. So, we provide translation cards of their menus for our guests to take with them. Otherwise neither side can cope – we have rescued foreign tourists several times due to this very problem and we are only taking about udon / soba in this case. The net effect of this, and our bilingual website, is that we are booked out and our authentic Japanese rivals cannot get customers. Businesses adapt to customers not the other way round – simple capitalism.

      • Blair

        Meanwhile the soba restaurant around the corner from Chichibu jinja has lineups round the corner daily…I guess if your product is good they will come

    • Blair

      Doing my Christmas shopping at Lalaport I heard more announcements in Chinese than Japanese…Signs in Chinese are cropping up everywhere to accommodate tourists. I suspect we will see more and more of this. Chinese should be offered as a subject in public schools, perhaps as an option instead of English. The ATM situation is no longer a situation…besides tourists have daytime hours free to do their banking, although most tourists exchange their money prior to coming to Japan and have cash available. If you’re a foreign national living in Japan and still don’t know enough to have enough cash on hand for a long weekend, I suggest you find someone to hold your hand and take you to your nearest bank to show you the sign that indicates its hours of operation.

      • woodynatural

        @@disqus_XCEGfmNdI9:disqus, some of the trolls here can’t be made to change their negative view on everything Japanese whatever your reasoning, they’ll always be like that… it’s a shame but that’s the way it is. I for one agree with your replies!

      • Blair

        A typical symptom of culture shock is irritability and hostility to the host culture. This manifests itself to a far greater degree for those who have been here for so long that they are at an age which they find it impractical or even impossible to return to their native culture…further increasing their resentment towards their host culture

      • woodynatural

        @@disqus_XCEGfmNdI9:disqus, some of the trolls here can’t be made to change their negative view on everything Japanese whatever your reasoning, they’ll always be like that… it’s a shame but that’s the way it is. I for one agree with your replies!

      • Alex _

        Oh, shut up. She is a free woman, not a damn monkey for entertainment. Such treatment of women in Japan is truly sickening. No wonder that Japan has been in recession for a quarter of century, with its social practices.

      • Blair

        see above

      • Alex _

        Shut up, weeb.

      • Alex _

        Shut up, weeb.

  • http://zi.n.gy/ Kirt Seth Cathey

    The Chinese coming to Japan does not appeal to me at all. They are rude, loud, filthy, and have a sense of entitlement that makes me want to punch them.

  • http://zi.n.gy/ Kirt Seth Cathey

    The Chinese coming to Japan does not appeal to me at all. They are rude, loud, filthy, and have a sense of entitlement that makes me want to punch them.

    • Robert_in_Japan

      Nah, I would think that people like you are rude, loud and filthy. MY, MY, what a broad brush we paint an entire group of people with.

    • Stewart Dorward

      So, just like Japanese tourists used to be like then.

    • Blair

      What a rude, entitled sentiment to have

  • Robert_in_Japan

    Bring on the Chinese. When I was in one site in Moji, most of the tourists there were Chinese. Get rid of them, and a LOT of stores and sites will be going bankrupt. And imagine, when they go back such people are far less anti-Japanese. Win-win.

  • Robert_in_Japan

    Bring on the Chinese. When I was in one site in Moji, most of the tourists there were Chinese. Get rid of them, and a LOT of stores and sites will be going bankrupt. And imagine, when they go back such people are far less anti-Japanese. Win-win.