National | NATIONAL SPOTLIGHT

Foreign tourism emerges as bright spot amid Japan's dim economic prospects

by Atsushi Kodera

Staff Writer

With few positive signs of recovery for Japan’s slumping economy, foreign tourism remains a sole ray of hope, and tourism authorities, local governments, industry players as well as retailers are eagerly awaiting another possibly record-breaking surge in Chinese tourists during next month’s Chinese New Year holiday.

Though economists say a tourism boom alone won’t bail the country out of its economic plight, they do see it having a positive impact.

Koichi Haji, managing director of NLI Research Institute, says the “effect in buoying economic sentiment is big.”

Foreign nationals visiting areas outside the capital are also likely to play a key role in revitalizing local economies, one of the key aspects of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policy, said Dai-ichi Life Research Institute Chief Economist Hideo Kumano.

But the current focus on tourism derives mostly from its sheer pace of growth.

From January last year to November, the number of arrivals surged by about 48 percent from the same period a year earlier to an estimated 18 million, according to the government-affiliated Japan National Tourism Organization. A year before that, the visitor count jumped 29 percent.

The latest figure brings the government tantalizingly close to achieving its annual 20 million target set for 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics.

Among the flood of arrivals Chinese tourists stand out as the leader. While territorial and historical issues had long been a thorn in the side of bilateral ties, Chinese tourists continue to visit Japan in numbers that outpace other nationalities in size and growth.

JNTO statistics show over 4.6 million Chinese visited Japan from January last year to November, up 109 percent year-on-year.

In the most recent JNTO figures for November, other top visitors were all from East Asia, including South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, which combined to represent nearly 70 percent of all arrivals that month. Visitors from each of these areas showed double-digit growth from a year ago in the January to November period.

But, with the sole exception of Russia, visitors from the top 20 countries of origin all grew by double-digits in the first 11 months of last year. The Russian decrease, according to the JNTO, was due to “slumping tourism demand.”

Experts attribute the visitor surge to multiple factors. Aside from interest in Japan, including anything from anime, pop idols, food, technology and Buddhism and Shinto culture, they often cite several other factors. These include the weak yen, which has made prices cheaper for visitors, relaxed visa conditions for Chinese and Southeast Asians and a growth of the middle class in the visitors’ countries of origin.

Visitor destinations vary depending on where they are from, according to Akiko Mitsuhashi, a senior consultant with the Japan Tourism Marketing Co.

“For example, Spain is so far away from Japan, and they see Japan as an exotic Eastern country, so many of them visit representative locations, such as (Tokyo’s) Asakusa and Kyoto, because they like temples and shrines,” Mitsuhashi said.

By contrast, other Asians who live closer to Japan see Japanese things on a daily basis and may even have Japanese friends at home, thanks in part to the local presence of Japanese firms.

“So what they want to do is experience real things by visiting Japan,” Mitsuhashi said. “They want to eat real ramen in Tokyo, for example.”

Technology-themed facilities and attractions, including the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Mega Web showroom, both in Tokyo’s Odaiba district, are also popular with Asians.

Among these visitors, Chinese tourists are notable in that their spending in Japan is significant and is focused primarily on shopping.

About 40 percent of these tourists spend ¥100,000 to ¥400,000 during their visit, according to an October Nomura Research Institute report, which also says this spending is relatively unrelated to income levels.

While Chinese represented 26.5 percent of all visitors from January to September last year, their spending represented 45.4 percent, totaling over ¥1 trillion.

Last year, Chinese tourists and their bakugai (“explosive buying”) shopping sprees made headlines. Images of legions of visitors emerging from tour buses near large retailers and returning laden with bags and boxes of cosmetics, electronics and apparel were splashed across newspapers and TV news.

Ultimately, bakugai was even named as a top buzzword for 2015.

It was this surge in inbound tourism that prompted the government to introduce a range of measures making visits easier in an effort to support the market’s further growth.

The Japan Tourism Agency on Dec. 21 launched a month-long Japan Mobile Week campaign with the aim of promoting the use of SIM cards and mobile Wi-Fi routers that enable the use of wireless Internet connection services in Japan.

Officials think their use remains limited and hope the campaign will facilitate wider Internet use in rural locations where public Wi-Fi spots are currently unavailable.

“The shortage of Wi-Fi spots was the most frequent complaint from inbound tourists in a survey several years ago, which prompted the introduction of (more) Wi-Fi spots, although Japan still trails many countries,” Japan Tourism Marketing Co.’s Mitsuhashi said.

She says improvement in Wi-Fi availability is important for promotion of tourism as travelers these days rely heavily on information from social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter.

An increasing number of such tourists are visiting Japan for their second time, third time or more, and prefer to plan their itinerary based on such information, as opposed to joining package tours.

Many in turn report their experiences in Japan with photos and video on the same online services. “They are not using the Net only to obtain information — they want to send information as well,” Mitsuhashi said.

Now, as the Chinese New Year holiday approaches next month, businesses have come out with a range of strategies to attract not only Chinese but also Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, South Koreans, Singaporeans and Vietnamese, whose respective traditional New Year holidays center around the weekend of Feb. 7.

The Odakyu Electric Railway Co., which has stops in traditionally popular spots including the ancient capital of Kamakura and the hot spring town of Hakone, both in Kanagawa Prefecture, is planning a promotional campaign targeting foreign visitors.

Odakyu hopes to lure them to these destinations with freebies, opening a special souvenir shop and holding cultural events, as well as a Web travel guide (jtim.es/Xax3F) available in English, Chinese and Korean.

Elsewhere, an unfortunate set of circumstances saw Saga Prefecture ranked at the top of a list of “prefectures that you will probably never visit for the rest of your life.”

Respondents to a poll, conducted in Japanese of 500 Internet users last March for the Freshers Web magazine, cited the prefecture’s inconvenient location and lack of notable features as reasons for the low ranking.

But despite this disappointing score, foresight by the prefectural government and local tourism insiders to lure visitors from abroad has borne fruit in the form of a significant increase of Thai tourists.

The secret, according to one local tourism official, was a strategy to lure film producers in target countries to shoot films in the prefecture, to which Thais responded. Two feature films and a serial aired over the Internet were shot, with all proving hits in 2014 and 2015.

Coupled with tourism promotion efforts, the number of Thai tourists jumped nearly tenfold to about 3,000 in the first 11 months of 2015, compared with previous annual figures of some 300 before the filming strategy, said Yasuko Kiyotake, a senior Saga Prefectural Tourism Federation official.

Now, Saga officials intend to build on their successes in Thailand.

“Saga’s Governor (Yoshinori Yamaguchi) will visit Bangkok this February to promote Japan tourism, and we’ll follow up on his efforts,” Kiyotake said.

Most of the prefecture’s hotels are equipped with Wi-Fi Internet connections available free of charge, and the tourism federation provides all-day year-round call service in multiple languages.

Saga Prefecture’s tongue-in-cheek promotional video posting (jtim.es/XaHlc) has also gone viral, with a total of 1.92 million hits.