Foreign visitors surge to record high


Foreign visitors to Japan rose 33 percent last month to their highest on record for a February as a weakening yen boosted travelers’ buying power, the Japan National Tourism Organization said in a report Friday.

Arrivals increased to 729,500 in February, from 547,948 a year earlier, it said. That’s the highest for a February, according to tourism agency statistics going back to 1964.

Tourists are taking advantage of the Japanese government’s efforts to curb the yen as a way to boost the economy by helping exporters, said Masahiro Yabuta, an economics professor at Tokyo’s Chuo University. The government has pledged stimulus measures, dubbed “Abenomics” after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, causing the yen to depreciate about 20 percent since mid-November following a postwar high of 75.35 reached in October 2011.

“After ‘Abenomics,’ thanks to the depreciating yen, many inbound tourists gain a benefit,” Yabuta said. “Prices actually decrease if I spend a dollar in Japan instead of America.”

The Japanese currency weakened to 96.71 against the dollar on March 12, the lowest since August 2009. The yen averaged 93.13 versus the dollar in February, 19 percent weaker than 78.48 in the month a year ago.

Visitors from Hong Kong posted the biggest increase, rising 97 percent to 56,500, while the number of travelers from Taiwan climbed 74 percent to 150,300, according to the tourism agency.

Travelers from China, with which Japan has a territorial dispute over uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, recorded the only decrease in February, falling 2 percent to 80,900.

The total increase is also being fueled by the dissipating effect on tourism of the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant that started in March 2011, Yabuta said.

Travelers have grown to trust government assurances regarding the containment of the disaster, in which three reactors melted down after tsunami caused by the country’s biggest earthquake on record, he said.

“Prices for tourists have been low for years, ever since the earthquake,” said Aya Kashigawa, who directs the tourism agency’s office in South Korea, from which visitors increased 39 percent last month. “Now, with the yen so weak, it really works out to Korean travelers’ benefit when they spend money in Japan.”