• Kyodo

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The number of foreign visitors to Japan reached a record high of 31.88 million in 2019, but the growth was limited by a sharp fall in tourists from South Korea amid deteriorating bilateral ties, the tourism minister said Friday.

The figure marked an all-time high for the seventh consecutive year but the margin of growth stood at 2.2 percent, remaining in single digits for the second straight year, according to Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Kazuyoshi Akaba.

The outcome clouded the outlook for the government’s goal to attract 40 million visitors this year.

While overall visitors are expected to increase in 2020 due to the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, some previous host cities have seen a decline in tourists as they have tried to reduce large crowds and accommodation fees tend to spike during the games.

With the number of flights connecting Japan and South Korea already cut amid reduced demand due to the strained ties, major travel agency JTB Corp. has estimated the number of overseas travelers in 2020 will only reach 34.3 million.

The government is scheduled to release a regional breakdown and other details of the tourism data on Jan. 17.

According to the Japan Tourism Agency, the number of South Korean visitors has continued to register double digit declines, up to 65 percent, since August last year. Previously, South Korean visitors made up roughly 20 percent of foreign tourists.

Bilateral relations have soured since South Korean court rulings ordered Japanese firms in 2018 to compensate for wartime forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

The row escalated last year into a tit-for-tat trade dispute, prompting each country to revoke the other’s preferential trade status.

However, the easing of visa restrictions and an increase in the number of international flights to and from Japan led to a steady growth in travelers from China and other Asian nations between January and November last year, according to the agency.

The number of tourists from countries such as the U.K. and Russia also rose sharply due to the Rugby World Cup, as well as other promotional campaigns that have encouraged tourists to visit the nation.

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