The number of foreign visitors to Japan hit a whopping 24.03 million last year, topping the 20 million mark for the first time and renewing the annual record high for the fifth straight year, tourism minister Keiichi Ishii said Tuesday.
But the 22 percent increase in the number of international visitors from the year before is smaller than the 47 percent surge logged in 2015, showing that maintaining phenomenal growth in the tourism sector is an increasingly tall order.
The 2016 tally is “a result of our unprecedented, quick and national-level measures” in the area of tourism, which the government sees as a key driver of economic growth, Ishii told a regularly scheduled news conference.
In addition to easing visa regulations and expanding duty-free shopping for visitors, the government has tried to reduce travel hang-ups by expediting customs procedures and promoting foreign-language signs, Ishii said, adding that such all-out efforts helped push up the visitor figures.
The nation’s tourism industry, however, was hit hard last year by the yen’s appreciation and a slowdown in the economy of China, the source of more than a quarter of all visitors. The series of earthquakes that hit Kumamoto Prefecture and other parts of the Kyushu region in April also put a dent in regional tourism figures.
In October, the Japan Tourism Agency announced that spending by foreign visitors during the July-September quarter fell to ¥971.7 billion, down 2.9 percent from the same period in 2015 and marking the first drop in 19 quarters.
Per capita spending during the same period also fell 17.1 percent to ¥155,133, a sign that the massive buying spree by Chinese tourists known as bakugai (explosive buying) is losing steam.
The government wants to keep what’s left of the momentum so it can achieve the target it set last March of accepting 40 million visitors in 2020, when a huge influx is expected before and during the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
During the ordinary session of the Diet set to kick off Jan. 20, the government plans to submit a bill that would legalize minpaku, or renting out private residences as accommodations for short-term guests.
Detailed statistics for 2016, including a breakdown of visitors by nationality, will be released Jan. 17, the tourism agency said.