Chinese tourists tumbling off buses into the Laox duty-free store in Tokyo’s bustling Ginza district say the yuan’s drop against the yen may make them think twice about splurging during their shopping tours.
“Many things are better than China,” said a 27-year-old Beijinger called Wang, who declined to give his full name but was happy to show off his purchases — a face-massaging tool and electric thermos. “Exchange rates are important,” he said, as the currency market determines what he can afford with his daily shopping budget equivalent to $800.
The number of Chinese visitors to Japan, which peaked at 591,510 in August, fell to 347,100 in December, the least since March, as the yuan weakened about 10 percent against the yen since the end of July.
That is a reversal from the 20 percent surge in the previous 12 months that helped Chinese tourism to Japan more than double in 2015.
Japan is increasingly relying on tourism as businesses cut investment and households curb spending. Visitors spent ¥3.4 trillion in 2015, about the same as the nation’s annual semiconductor or automobile-part exports, according to the Ministry of Finance.
Economists forecast growth of only 1 percent this year and just 0.6 percent in 2017, even as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enters the fourth year of a premiership focused on ending 20 years of economic stagnation.
“The strong yuan has enabled many people to go on shopping binges in Japan even when the Chinese economy has been wobbly,” said Daisuke Karakama, chief market economist at Mizuho Bank Ltd. in Tokyo. “The yuan has been fixed at an artificially high level, which hasn’t reflected the country’s economic condition, and the repercussions are now being felt.”
The exchange rate matters because, after visitor numbers from China climbed 107 percent last year to 5 million, they made up a quarter of the overall total, according to Japan Tourism Agency data released in January. The Chinese each spent an average ¥283,842, the most of any nationality.
Favorite purchases included high-tech rice cookers and even electronic toilet seats.
Shujing Lu, 25, said Japan will remain her destination of choice regardless of currency moves because its products are higher quality, while a 46-year-old regular visitor who gave his name only as Liu said the exchange rate was making him put off purchases he was unsure on.
Liu, who paid about ¥2 million for a CD player and amplifier from Accuphase Laboratory Inc. in one of his two visits last year, said Chinese people will curtail their shopping if the yuan continues to weaken.
Forty-three percent of Chinese tourists surveyed by Hong Kong-based brokerage CLSA Ltd. said they would reduce the number of their outbound trips if the yuan weakened 10 percent in the next year, and 35 percent said they would cut the amount they spent on shopping.
Thirty-five percent said they would switch to cheaper destinations, according to the report from Hong Kong-based analysts Aaron Fischer and Marcus Liu published this month.
Analysts are becoming increasing bearish on the yuan as China’s economy slows. The median forecast is for it to weaken to 6.6 per dollar by March 31 from an earlier prediction of 6.2 made at the end of July.
At the same time, they are less negative on the yen, expecting the dollar to strengthen to ¥122 from an earlier estimate of ¥126, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
JPMorgan & Chase Co. sees scope for the yuan to decline another 10 percent against the yen by year-end. In addition to sapping retail spending in Japan, this threatens to increase deflationary pressure as imports from China become cheaper.
Tohru Sasaki, head of Japan markets research at the company in Tokyo, said he expects the yuan will weaken to 6.9 per dollar by year-end, and at the same time the yen will strengthen against the greenback to around 110.
“The yuan will be considerably weaker against the yen, falling below 16,” he said. “That would have a wide-reaching impact on Japan’s economy.”