The number of tourists visiting Japan from South Korea continues to decline amid soured relations between the two countries, dealing a serious blow to destinations popular with South Korean visitors.
The number contracted year on year for six consecutive months from July 2019, when Japan imposed tougher rules on exports to South Korea, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO).
“South Korean visitors have decreased 80 percent to 90 percent from a year before,” lamented a man operating an inn in Oita Prefecture.
Railway operator Tokyu Corp. said the decreasing number of South Korean tourists is impacting its hotel business, especially in Kyushu, which had enjoyed high occupancy rates and strong earnings thanks to them before last July.
The number of South Korean tourists then dropped 7.6 percent that month, and the pace of decrease accelerated to 65.5 percent in October and 65.1 percent in November.
In December, the number fell an estimated 63.6 percent, the JNTO’s latest data shows.
In 2019, the total number of South Korean tourists to Japan shrank 25.9 percent from the previous year to 5,584,600, marking the first drop since 2011, the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
The decrease stands out, as the total number of foreign tourists grew 2.2 percent to a record high of 31,882,100 in 2019.
With many South Koreans coming to think twice about visiting due to frayed bilateral relations, the weakened demand for travel to Japan has had a knock-on effect for others tourists, as low-cost carriers have been forced to reduce operations between the two countries.
LCCs offer low airfares by minimizing operating costs and maximizing the number of passengers on each flight. As local airports in Japan cut landing fees to attract airlines, South Korean LCCs increased flights to them.
But the business model of budget airlines does not work if the number of passengers decreases. A passenger load factor of 80 percent is the break-even point of LCCs, according to those in the industry.
The plunge in the number of tourists has prompted South Korean LCCs to cancel or cut back on flights, discouraging even tourists willing to visit Japan despite soured relations.
South Korean airlines’ winter operation schedule from late October includes 692 flights between the two countries per week, a decrease of about 500 from the summer schedule that started in late March. Of that steep reduction, LCCs account for an overwhelming 444 of the lost flights.
Oita Airport can no longer claim to be an international airport because South Korean budget airlines have stopped flying there. South Korean LCCs have also canceled or reduced flights to local airports, especially in Kyushu.
Japan Tourism Agency Commissioner Hiroshi Tabata said the organization will “continue close cooperation with travel agencies in South Korea” to revive the popularity of tours to Japan among South Koreans.
The annual number of foreign tourists to Japan topped 30 million for the first time in 2018, but the pace of growth slowed in 2019.
Although the Japanese government aims to attract 40 million tourists from abroad this year, the target appears difficult to attain without an increase in arrivals from South Korea, which has been the second-largest source of tourists to Japan.
The government aims to attract more tourists from countries and regions other than China, South Korea and Taiwan. But a serious pickup in inbound tourism will require an improvement in ties between Japan and South Korea.