National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Kansai businesses suffer as COVID-19 alarm hurts tourism

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

The Japanese expression “kankodori ga naku” (literally, “the cuckoo sings”) is frequently used to describe a business slump.

“Kankodori” appears in a headline in Flash (Feb. 18) concerning Nara Park. Not only are visitor numbers to this destination way down, but the famous deer that wander its premises appear underfed for lack of humans to treat them with the park’s special shika sembei (deer crackers).

“The number of visitors from China has been declining day by day,” said a woman who sells the crackers. “Sales are only about half of what they were before the ban (on visits by Chinese tour groups) went in place.”

The dropoff in visitors is even affecting deer behavior.

“The deer have learned to approach people and ask for crackers by nodding their heads, as if to bow in respect,” says the aforementioned park vendor. “Now, however, they trot toward the visitors in an aggressive manner. I suppose it’s because they’re hungry and aren’t in the mood to show courtesy.”

Despite the Chinese government’s cutoff of group tours from Jan. 27, a few Chinese nationals could still be found strolling in the park.

“Since our daughter’s birthday fell during this year’s spring festival, we had wanted to travel in China,” a young father from Beijing tells the reporter. “But domestic travel was restricted, so we gave up on that idea. Since our daughter really likes Japanese culture, we quickly changed plans and came to Japan. The flight over was practically empty.”


In Shukan Shincho’s (Feb. 13) view, with the present restrictions on arrivals from China, the government’s target of 40 million overseas visitors for 2020 has essentially been rendered impossible. Last year, Chinese tourists accounted for 30 percent of the total 31.8 million visitors.

Still, not everyone in the Kansai area is despairing the shortfall in visitors. Shincho’s story headline reads “Gion has gone back to being a quiet town.”

Aggressive foreign visitors “stalking” maiko (apprentice geisha) on Gion’s streets is yet another activity blamed on the oft-cited term “tourist pollution.”

It’s why some residents of Kyoto’s Gion neighborhood aren’t complaining of the downturn.

“Since the coronavirus flared up, Chinese tour groups have vanished,” says one resident. “Traffic on major thoroughfares like Shijo and Higashioji streets has been moving much more smoothly. People here have told me, ‘It’s like Gion has reverted to how things were 10 years ago,’ or ‘The number of visitors now is just right.’ Pardon me if I seem indiscreet, but it wouldn’t bother me if things stay the way they are now.”

“Increasing inbound visitors isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se,” says Shigeaki Koga, a retired civil servant who returned to Gion 10 years ago. “But the government’s present policy of depending exclusively on ‘inbound’ to boost economic growth is a fragile, unstable way of doing things that’s vulnerable to things like the current crisis. Merely seeking to attract more visitors leads to tourist pollution. We should not try to encourage visitors to join bargain tours, but seek more who would want to come, even if prices are higher. The tourism policy should be changed to emphasize the quality of inbound.”


Foreign visitors and the coronavirus are not the only topics related to Kansai’s tourism headaches. Kazunari Ichinomiya’s long-running “Black Money” column in Shukan Jitsuwa (Feb. 27) touched on the construction of hotels in Nara.

Nara Park, opened in the ancient capital in 1880, is one of the nation’s oldest public parks, occupying some 660 hectares if adjacent temples are included.

It seems Tokyo-based Hulic Co., Ltd. is winding up construction of a two-story resort hotel on a 1.3-hectare plot adjacent to the park. One of two hotel projects now underway in the area, Fufu Nara is scheduled to open on June 5. In addition to a restaurant and accommodation, guests will be able to luxuriate with a steamy soak in mineral water, trucked in by tankers, in a rotenburo (outdoor bath) that affords a scenic view of the park.

“All this hotel will do is spoil the atmosphere that so many Japanese and foreigners alike have come to love these long years,” residents are complaining. Some 35,000 of them signed a petition opposing the hotel’s construction and 56 people have filed a class-action suit.

On Jan. 28, however, the Nara District Court ruled in favor of the developer, on grounds that based on the relevant law, no evidence could be found that the hotel would damage the park’s value as a cultural asset.

“Those tanker trucks will be transporting water on a daily basis,” grumbled one of the litigants, who argued that a luxury hotel will bring no benefits to the local community. “If it’s allowed, it means the law permits building hotels anyplace, even in urban parks.”

Locals are also unhappy about the Starbucks coffee outlet that opened in April 2018 on land adjacent to the park’s bus terminal. They feel the cafe clashes with the surroundings.


Meanwhile, Yukan Fuji (Feb. 20) examined how the virus epidemic might affect upcoming sports activities completely unrelated to this summer’s Olympic Games, including two major events in Kansai this month.

The fate of the Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament, which starts a week from today, is to be decided at a meeting of the Japan Sumo Association on March 1. Three possible scenarios include holding it as scheduled; holding and televising matches but with no spectators admitted; and canceling it outright.

Meanwhile, the two-week-long Spring National High School Baseball Tournament begins March 19 at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya City. The games typically attract 40,000 or more spectators every day.

On Feb. 19, NHK TV reported the tournament will be held “as scheduled,” pending a final decision by the steering committee on March 4.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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