National

Rural Japan looks to tap repeat tourists from abroad amid slump in shopping sprees

Kyodo

With signs of a slowdown in foreign tourists’ spending at urban shopping centers in the country, officials and businesses in regional cities are aiming to draw greater interest in their untapped tourism resources as repeat visitors from abroad increase.

Consumption by foreign tourists in Japan is tapering against the backdrop of the strong yen, which makes goods more expensive for them, as well as the Chinese government’s decision in April to charge higher taxes on purchases made abroad and brought home by travelers.

Hard hit are department stores in metropolitan areas, which have begun to bank on sales of luxury brand items to tourists, especially those from China, who were once known for their phenomenal buying sprees. Those waves of purchasing had lifted overall retail sales by foreign nationals at such stores nationwide.

September sales to foreign shoppers dropped 10.1 percent from a year earlier, marking a fall for the sixth consecutive month, the Japan Department Stores Association said Thursday.

Foreign visitors increased at shops such as Daimaru, Isetan and Mitsukoshi but per-shopper spending fell, according to the industry group.

This drop in per-customer sales is a major blow to retailers struggling already with slumping sales of clothing lines for Japanese customers, because “inbound (tourists) are one of the few areas where we can expect growth,” an official of a major department store said.

“I used to buy brand goods just to show off but now prefer something more practical,” said a 60-year-old Chinese man who was buying a coat at Takashimaya’s Nihonbashi outlet in Tokyo. “I like Japanese-made goods for their smooth feel and meticulous needlework.”

The city of Fukuoka has also been impacted by a dip in shopping, dragged down further by inclement weather.

In port of Hakata, the country’s most frequently visited gateway by cruise ships in 2015, department stores and duty-free shops were counting on inbound tourists during China’s holiday-studded Oct. 1 to 7 period.

But a typhoon that struck the region halved the number of buses carrying foreign visitors to Canal City Hakata, a major shopping complex including tax-free outlets, in the period this year, compared with previous years.

Hakata Daimaru department store in Fukuoka’s bustling Tenjin shopping area is also experiencing falling sales to foreign travelers. “Per-customer sales are dropping along with a fall in demand for luxury brands,” said an official.

Meanwhile, visitors from abroad to regional cities in Japan, including repeat travelers, are increasing, according to a report published Monday by the Bank of Japan.

The village of Shirakawa in Gifu Prefecture, known for a cluster of traditional gassho-style thatched-roof homes, estimates more than 260,000 foreign tourists came last year.

This was a record high for Shirakawa, one of the central Japan villages hosting the scenic farmhouses recognized as a World Heritage asset by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

But the village found that foreign tourists stay only an average of 90 minutes there, suggesting many probably do not dine or stay over.

Shirakawa is collaborating with travel agencies and financial institutions to come up with ideas for travelers to stay longer, including overnight stays.

“We would like to work out measures to encourage travelers to spend more,” said an official of the village’s tourism promotion division.

Hyogo, Ehime and five other prefectures in Honshu and Shikoku sandwiching the Seto Inland Sea jointly established a tourism promotion body for local officials to adapt to a shifting interest among foreign visitors from luxury shopping to experience-based trips.

The Inland Sea Setouchi Tourism Authority has proposed tours themed on arts and history as well as souvenirs featuring local produce. “We are targeting repeaters and hoping to reinvigorate local industries,” said an official at the authority.

“Local regions have rich tourism resources such as shrines, temples and natural habitat but they haven’t generated (tourism) demand,” said Shunpei Fujita, a researcher at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting Co. “It’s necessary to step up efforts to increase knowledgeable personnel engaged in promoting regional tourism.”

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