TOKYO, Mar 29 (Reporting ASEAN) – It used to be Japanese tourists who spread out across South-east Asia, but these days it is tourists from Asia who are flocking to Japan – in the process being a beacon of hope against the backdrop of the country’s dimming economic outlook.
Akiko Ozaki, manager of Tao Travels, a travel consultancy company in Japan, said that over the past three years, her business has become dependent on inbound tourism from Asia, buoyed in part by increased inflows from South-east Asia.
“Chinese travellers continue to be the most important for me,” she said. “But recently I have expanded my services to include visitors from Thailand, Singapore and Sri Lanka.”
Seeing the rise in Asian visitors to Japan, the Japanese government is looking beyond its shores – by making tourism a major income earner against the backdrop of its lackluster economic growth. Plagued by weak domestic demand, Japan has been in recession, its economy picking up slightly in 2015 with .4 percent GDP growth from zero growth in 2014. The Bank of Japan expects Japan’s GDP growth to grow by 1.4 percent in 2016.
The world’s third largest economy, renowned for its export industry, also faces challenges such as an ageing population and tight competition over cheaper products from its neighbours, said Nikkei.
“Inbound tourism has been a shining star in the otherwise unspectacular Abenomics show,” the English-language ‘Nikkei Asian Review’ said in February, referring to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic policies.
In 2015, Japan drew almost 20 million visitors, 47 percent of whom were from East Asia and member countries of the 630 million-strong Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), according to the state-run Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO).
Chinese, followed by South Koreans and Taiwanese, made up the majority of tourists to Japan. But the number of visitors from South-east Asia, including Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, has also soared.
Tourist arrivals from ASEAN have jumped 30 to 40 percent, compared, for instance, with only 15 percent from the United States, according to JNTO.
In 2014, travel and tourism contributed 2.4 percent, or 11.9 billion yen (107 million US dollars), to the Japan’s GDP, reported the World Travel and Tourism Council. The sector has also generated 1.5 million jobs, or 1.8 percent of Japan’s total employment. This number is expected to reach 6 percent by 2020.
A major reason driving South-east Asians’ travel to Japan – which for a long time used to be a desired but too expensive place to go to – is Tokyo’s grant of visa waivers to Thai, Filipino, Malaysian and Vietnamese nationals.
The visa policy, announced in 2014, is expected to help Japan meet its target of 10 million tourists annually. In 2015, the country welcomed 19.7 million tourists, up from 12.7 million in 2014. Japan has targeted 20 million tourists by 2020, a significant number of whom will almost certainly come from South-east Asia.
Growing disposable incomes in South-east Asia and the advent of low-cost airlines across the region have been an added push to increased tourism outflows from ASEAN.
Deploying a new strategy called Cool Japan, the Abe administration has set its sights on overseas travellers. Amid the rising yen against the US dollar, it is also working hard to turn around Japan’s image as a prohibitively expensive country.
Among Japan’s South-east Asian visitors, young female Thai travellers comprise the biggest chunk, followed by travelling families from Malaysia and Singapore.
Filipino tourists usually stay the longest — up to two weeks compared to an average of about a week among others from the sub-region.
Asian visitors to Japan generally enjoy a combination of shopping and tours of historic sites, including Kyoto, the 16th century capital that boasts majestic Buddhist temples and the samurai’s rich cultural heritage.
Japan’s capital, Tokyo, remains the most popular shopping district, where high-quality electronics ranging from rice cookers to computers are top buys among tourists. Other major attractions are Japanese anime goods and trendy clothing that Asian youth find chic.
Competition to attract Asian visitors is strong among Japanese tourist companies, which are focusing on promoting yet undiscovered locations among returning tourists.
Ozaki of Tao Travels said her company is currently developing new travel itineraries, including those for returning tourists from ASEAN, “because they can now get tourist visas easily”.
Now popular among Asian visitors is the magnificent Mount Koya, the birthplace of Japanese Buddhism 12 centuries ago.
Located in Wakayama prefecture, about 150 kilometres west of the Japanese capital, the sprawling complex of ancient temples is a World Heritage Site and has become widely sought after by foreign visitors who are looking for a pure Japanese experience.
Given their own Buddhist background, many Asian visitors such as Thais are increasingly drawn to sacred sites in Japan, including Koyasan, as Mount Koya is also known.
Japan’s most revered Buddhist saint, Kukai, introduced Buddhism to Japan from China, and blended it with Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religious belief system that worships nature.
For Asians visiting Japan, Koyasan offers a unique experience. They marvel at the temples graced with rock gardens and seasonal flowers, made more inviting by the quiet and relaxing atmosphere amid scenes of grandeur. The sight of a cemetery that includes tombstones of former Japanese warlords credited with developing world-renowned traditional arts such as pottery and watercolour painting is an added pleasure. (END/Reporting ASEAN)