OSAKA – Thanks to a favorable exchange rate, relaxed visa restrictions, more discount airlines flying into Kansai airport and an increase in the number of duty-free shops downtown, the number of foreign visitors to Osaka this year is expected to top 5 million for perhaps the first time.
From the luxury hotels and tony brand-name shops of the city’s northern Umeda district to bars and restaurants of the southern Shinsaibashi and Namba districts, as well as in Tsuruhashi’s Koreatown, the Osaka Castle area and the working-class Nishinari district, foreign visitors are arriving in droves. And they are spending money and injecting much-needed revenue into a city that until fairly recently was rarely if ever on the itinerary of most foreign tourists.
“We were in Tokyo, and did some shopping, but the prices in Osaka for things like pharmaceuticals and clothing are much cheaper. I especially liked the covered arcade that runs from central Osaka to Namba, because there are lots of interesting and very cheap stores,” said Meiying Song, a tourist from Shanghai who was in the city earlier this month with a tour group.
The Osaka Tourism and Convention Bureau announced on Aug. 17 that between April and June, almost 1.9 million foreign tourists visited the city and the prefecture. A total of nearly 3.2 million foreign visitors came to Osaka in the first half of this year, and the final tally for 2015 is likely to be over 5 million, the bureau predicts.
Tourists from mainland China formed the largest group of foreigners between January and June, as the total number topped 1.1 million. About 515,000 Taiwanese, 476,000 Koreans and 240,000 people from Hong Kong also came.
Osaka, and the Kansai region in general, has long had something of an “Asia First” policy when it comes to tourism and business, and this has often been at the expense of efforts to attract Western tourists. That appears to be changing, however. While Kyoto gets international accolades from American and European travel magazines, and remains, after Tokyo, the favorite spot in Japan for many Western tourists, Osaka has made gains over the past couple of years.
Over 110,000 Americans visited Osaka in the first six months of 2015, compared to about 80,000 during the same period last year. The number of British visitors between January and June was about 27,000, as opposed to fewer than 16,000 in the first half of 2014.
And though the numbers are smaller, almost 23,000 Germans visited Osaka in the first half of 2015, up from 12,000 during the same period in 2014.
Hiroshi Mizohata, president of the Osaka Convention & Tourism Bureau, gave specific reasons for the rise in foreign tourists, particularly from China.
“Osaka has created for itself a reputation as a major city for gourmet food and shopping. The local market has answered to this demand by creating more duty-free shops and other advantages for travelers,” he said.
Foreign foodies in particular are discovering that Osaka also produces some of the world’s finest cooking knives.
“The knives of Sakai city have contributed to the development of Japanese cuisine. Without them, Japanese cuisine would most likely not be what it is today,” Mizohata said.
The influx of foreign tourists is filling up hotels and helping to revive local businesses in those parts of the city where foreign tourists are particularly numerous. The Nishinari district, for example, long notorious for being one of the poorest areas of the city but also the cheapest and most bohemian, has cleaned itself up in recent years.
A glittering new shopping complex full of sleek, modern stores now stands on an area once patronized by locals and more adventurous foreign travelers for its dark and narrow back alleys with shadowy bars and pubs, full of day-laborers, yakuza, prostitutes, and the homeless. Where you could once buy cheap sake for ¥50 a glass in a run-down shack, you can now purchase expensive bottles of wine in an air-conditioned store where the clerks increasingly speak Chinese.
To attract not only Chinese, but all foreign tourists, Daniel Lee, publisher of Kansai Scene magazine, said the city of Osaka city needs to do two things to continue to make life easier.
“More English-language signs and information would be appreciated. It would also help to have better Wi-Fi facilities that are easy to use. Some parts of the city are good, but more need to be covered,” he said.
The influx of tourists has also created a huge demand for hotels, and for many individual travelers from abroad, finding a room can be difficult. Lee said many resident Osaka and Kansai-area foreigners who have started up bed & breakfast businesses are doing quite well, and he believes that trend will continue as Japan gets closer to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Once upon a time, Osaka played second fiddle (or shamisen) to Kyoto when it came to foreign tourism. While many people, especially from the West, still use Osaka as a base to explore the rest of Kansai, the growing numbers of tourists on its streets over the past couple of years suggest that, after years of effort, Osaka is finally becoming a tourist destination in its own right.