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Tourism promoters backing the first authorized Chinese package tour to Japan say they foresee 1 million people from Beijing, Shanghai and other parts of China visiting each year.

A group of 95 Chinese tourists flew to Japan last Wednesday for a nine-day trip. They were slated to stop at such popular sightseeing draws as Atami and Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, as well as Nagoya, Kyoto, Nara and Nagasaki.

The trip was made possible when Japanese authorities lifted a longtime ban on issuing tourist visas to Chinese nationals, abandoning fears that opening the door to tourists from China would lead to a flood of illegal immigrants.

The number of tourist visas, which are currently restricted to residents of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong Province, is capped at 5,000 for the next six months.

But optimists, such as one representative from Japan’s largest travel agency, Japan Travel Bureau Inc., are confident that in a few years the market will grow to about 1 million Chinese annually.

The package tour that began last week is priced at about 230,000 yen, but organizers predict an economic “ripple effect” from money spent on meals and shopping.

Until now, Japanese visas issued to Chinese nationals were restricted to those traveling for study or employment. Tourism was allowed only when Chinese entering Japan were visiting family or friends.

As a result, Chinese visitors to Japan last year numbered under 300,000, compared with some 1.23 million Japanese visitors to China.

“If you consider that the population (of China) is more than 1.2 billion, the market 10 years from now will have expanded explosively,” said Hiromi Funabiki, president of Japan Air System, an airline that has flights to China.

Japanese tourism officials in areas that have been feeling the pinch of the recession are conducting promotional campaigns to attract Chinese travelers, hoping that foreign demand will act as a catalyst for local growth.

Hokkaido, for instance, has seen a drop of more than 10 percent in the number of visitors to its tourist spots this summer from a year earlier, due partly to the eruption in March of Mount Usu. The prefecture plans to set up a booth at a tourism exposition in Shanghai next month.

Tourism officials in Kyushu, meanwhile, are banking on the region’s proximity to China.

Nagasaki prefectural officials, for instance, have organized several promotional events since its governor visited China early last year, and the Miyazaki Prefectural Government sent a mission to Shanghai late last month to explore the prospects of lining up tourists from China.

One skeptic amid these efforts is the Transport Ministry, where officials remain wary about illegal immigrants taking advantage of the package tours.

They point to Australia, which experienced illegal immigration from China after Canberra lifted its ban on Chinese tourist visas last year.

The ministry has already adopted punitive measures against travel companies that have organized tours from which five or more people slip away to stay in Japan illegally. Such firms can lose their right to operate for one month.

“These measures are to ensure that tourists will properly return home after their tour ends,” Vice Transport Minister Hisashi Umezaki said.

But critics say the measures will simply mean that tour guides will have to keep an ever-watchful eye on their groups.

“Those participating in these package tours are paying hundreds of thousands of yen in deposit to the Chinese tour companies in addition to travel expenses,” said Shinichiro Shiranishi, president of the Japan-China Friendship Association, adding that Chinese who are able to afford such fees are unlikely to attempt to live in Japan illegally.

Treating Chinese tourists as criminals runs counter to the promotion of friendship, he stressed.

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