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Tourism officials from Japan and South Korea, looking to capitalize on the 2002 World Cup soccer finals, are mulling ways to double the number of tourists from overseas.

Plans being considered by the cohosts include visa-free travel between the neighboring nations and completion of entry formalities in South Korea for Japan-bound tourists.

Central to the plan is what officials of the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry’s Tourism Department call an “Asian Big Bang” in tourism as the regional economy grows.

While China lifted a ban on package tours to Japan eight months ago, the measure has so far applied only to residents of Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.

With a population of 1.26 billion people, China is eyed by the Japanese tourist industry as a market with enormous potential.

Japan meanwhile lags behind other industrially advanced countries in terms of tourism.

With only 4.4 million tourists visiting Japan in 1999 — around a quarter of the 16 million Japanese who traveled abroad in the same year — Japan sits at the bottom of the tourism list in the Group of Eight industrial nations.

On a global scale, Japan ranked a dismal 36th, four places behind South Korea. Germany, which placed seventh among the G8, still managed to come in at 12th overall.

The Japan National Tourist Organization said the number of tourists visiting Japan is not commensurate with its economy and population.

An increase in foreign tourists, the organization said, would enhance understanding of Japan in the international community, thereby easing international friction over political and economic issues.

Almost 9 million foreign tourists visit Japan and South Korea annually, and tourism industry officials hope to increase the number to 16 million by 2007.

They wish to balance the outflow of Japanese and South Koreans making sightseeing trips to other nations with an increase in foreign tourists visiting to the two East Asian countries.

The suggestion to handle foreign tourists’ entry procedures in bulk from South Korean airports was given the cold shoulder by officials of the Justice and Foreign ministries in Tokyo, fearing it would lead to a surge in people overstaying their visas. There are currently about 230,000 people overstaying their visas in Japan, a quarter of whom are reportedly South Koreans.

Foreign Ministry officials also question the merits of such an exclusive arrangement. “How would we explain to other nations that they are not (to be included)?” an official asked.

Justice Ministry officials, who normally appeal for bigger staffs to handle immigration and security matters, said that instead they will focus on improving airport efficiency.

Acknowledging the barrier built up by generations of animosity between the two countries, tourism industry sources said it will be difficult for Japan and South Korea to take full advantage of the opportunities the World Cup event will offer.

Tourism officials of both nations are also considering the issuance of a special joint Japan-South Korea version of the popular discount Eurail pass, which enables foreign tourists to make stops in various European countries, and jointly running a tourism campaign.

Officials from the Japanese Tourism Department said it is important that the two countries promote Japan and South Korea together as a single, packaged tourist destination, working together to attract tourists rather than trying to pit one country against the other. They added that they would like to see this network expand to include all of East Asia.

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