The annual number of inbound travelers to Japan topped 30 million for the first time in mid-December, and is believed to have reached 31 million by the end of 2018. That’s about six times the figure recorded in 2003, when the government set a target of welcoming 10 million visitors by “around 2010.” Inbound tourism to Japan took a hit from the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. But the number has increased by three times in just five years since the figure topped 10 million in 2013.

Being able to attract tourists from overseas leads to greater international understanding of Japan and more exchanges with people from abroad. Increased consumption by inbound tourists, which now underpins the business of retail sectors such as department stores, has allowed Japan, with its rapidly aging and shrinking population, to benefit from expanding consumer demand in the rapidly growing economies of Asia — a key source of the inbound tourism. Efforts must be sustained to beef up tourism as a key industry in the future.

The sharp increase in inbound tourism in recent years came on the back of rapid growth in many Asian economies, which boosted travel demand among consumers who could increasingly afford overseas tours. The depreciation of the yen since 2012 made travel to Japan more affordable, and the government took steps such as easing visa requirements for tourists from Southeast Asia as well as increasing the number of duty-free shops, while more flights to Japan by low-cost carriers also shored up inbound tourism.

JTB Corp. expects the number of inbound tourists to grow 12 percent in 2019 to 35.5 million. The government says its next target of increasing the number to 40 million in 2020 — when Tokyo will host the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games — is now within reach. It has a longer-term goal of boosting the figure to 60 million in 2030 and establishing the tourism industry as a key growth sector. Many challenges remain, however, to maintain the inbound tourism boom in the years ahead.

In the first 10 months of 2018, travelers from four East Asian economies — China, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong — accounted for 74 percent of the total, while the share of tourists from Europe, North America and Australia came to around 12 percent — a regional breakdown that has remained roughly the same for the past few years. Because the growth in the number of tourists from East Asia is expected to slow down, one of the challenges is to attract more travelers from Western countries and Southeast Asia to diversify the sources of inbound tourists.

Another challenge is to diversify the destinations of the tourists from abroad, which tend to concentrate in the three big metropolitan areas: Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. Many inbound tourists, in particular first-time visitors, are believed to take what is referred to as the “golden route” connecting the popular destinations of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. The government has set a target of increasing the share of foreign visitors who stay overnight outside the three metropolitan areas from 50 percent in 2020 to 60 percent of the total in 2030. However, the increase in this ratio, which stood at 38 percent in 2015, has stagnated at around 41 percent since 2017. For rural areas that attract few inbound tourists, developing and publicizing local attractions and improving public transportation are deemed key measures.

Room capacity at hotels in popular urban destinations is failing to keep up with the rapid increases in tourists — a problem that is not expected to be resolved anytime soon even as the rush continues to build more hotels ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games. The government is promoting minpaku (private lodging services) to make up for the shortage of hotel rooms, but the number of officially registered properties is falling short of expectations due to tight regulations under the new law implemented last year.

Providing relevant information in multiple languages is also key to sustaining the inbound tourism boom. During the series of big disasters that hit Japan last year, such as the September earthquake in Hokkaido and the powerful typhoon that crippled Kansai International Airport, there were complaints from some tourists that they had no access to crucial information about the disasters and evacuation instructions. The government plans to beef up multilingual information service at airports and key terminal railway stations. The amended immigration control law enacted last year opens the door wider to foreign workers beginning this year — and one of the challenges is to provide them with various kinds of support, such as multilingual information on administrative and other services, as they live here. Creating a society in which foreign workers can live at ease should also help turn Japan into a more attractive destination for tourists from overseas.

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