Can tourism become a force for economic growth? The Japanese government hopes so, making tourism, including medical tourism, one pillar of its new growth strategy adopted last summer.

On March 8, plans were announced for raising the share of tourism-related revenues in Japan’s GDP from 2 percent in 2009 to between 3 and 3.9 percent by 2016. By comparison, Austria had a “tourism GDP” of 5.4 percent in 2007; New Zealand, 4.1 percent (2008); France, 3.7 percent (2007); and Britain, 3.4 percent (2007).

On Jan. 26, the Japan Tourism Agency set a target of 11 million inbound visitors in 2011, after missing its goal of 10 million for 2010. According to the Japan National Tourist Organization, a record 8.61 million foreign tourists came to Japan last year, largely from other Asian countries. The largest number came from South Korea — 2.43 million (an increase of 53.8 percent over the previous year) — followed by China at 1.41 million (up 40.5 percent) and Taiwan at 1.26 million (up 23.8 percent). The number of U.S. tourists rose 3.9 percent to 720,000; 180,000 tourists came from Britain, and 150,000 from France.

Beyond traditional tourist spending, the aim is to increase Japan’s soft power to heighten the Japanese “brand” in areas like sports, fashion and medicine. In medical tourism particularly, Japan lags far behind other Asian countries such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. In January a new visa allowing foreigners to enter Japan for medical stays was established, and in fiscal 2012, the health ministry plans to introduce a system for certifying hospitals as qualified to treat foreign patients.

The Development Bank of Japan sees a potential for 430,000 medical tourists by 2020, a market worth ¥550 billion. Already, according to the Yomiuri newspaper, the Raffles Medical Group of Singapore plans to build a large facility near JR Osaka station to provide medical services to wealthy individuals from China, Russia and other countries.

Such efforts constitute a promising avenue for moving beyond manufacturing in a new borderless world. However, “Man proposes, God disposes,” and it remains to be seen how serious a blow the Tohoku-Kanto earthquake, tsunami and unfolding nuclear plant crisis have dealt to the new efforts.

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