April 24, 2014 5:32 am JST

Tourists to Japan venture off the beaten path

TOKYO -- Foreigners are vacationing in Japan in record numbers, but not necessarily to trod the "golden route," centering on Tokyo and leading to such destinations as Mt. Fuji, Kyoto and Osaka. Instead, more tourists are opting to visit such places as Hokkaido and Kyushu, providing a welcome boon to these regional economies.

     A record 10.98 million foreigners visited Japan in fiscal 2013, according to statistics released Wednesday by the Japan National Tourism Organization, up 26% over the previous fiscal year.

     By nationality, the increases were particularly striking among tourists from Southeast Asia. Thais and Malays, backed by strong currencies and no longer required to carry tourist visas, jumped at the opportunity to visit Japan in fiscal 2013. The number of tourists from Thailand rose 76% to around 500,000, and visitors from Malaysia grew 46% to about 200,000.

     In terms of absolute numbers, South Koreans were the largest group, their ranks swelling by some 10% to 2.46 million.

     In March alone, Japan welcomed about 1.05 million foreign tourists, up 23% from a year earlier and the greatest number ever for a single month.

     Hokkaido, with its majestic snow-covered scenery, is becoming an increasingly popular destination for foreign tourists. Among Taiwanese visitors last year, 16.3% spent nights in Hokkaido, second only to Tokyo as a place to stay. During the October-December ski season, it was more popular than Tokyo. The Hotel Okura Sapporo, in the center of Sapporo near Odori Park, is considering adding more Chinese-speaking staff, since bookings by Taiwanese tourists rose 21% in fiscal 2013 and accounted for roughly 70% of all foreign tourists staying there.

     Fukuoka Prefecture is also enjoying a boom in foreign tourism, especially among South Koreans taking advantage of the high-speed ferry service between Busan and Fukuoka. Boat operator JR Kyushu Jet Ferry said that as of April 18, reservations for the upcoming Golden Week holidays by foreigners were up 23% from last year, with most reservations made by South Koreans. By contrast, use of its ferries among Japanese is down 3%.

     With domestic carriers curtailing service at Kitakyushu Airport, city officials have courted a discount airline operator from South Korea. Such flights would help tap the pent up demand of foreign tourists seeking to visit.

     Tokyo is becoming less of the go-to destination for foreign tourists. In 2009, 34.8% of all nights foreign visitors stayed in Japan were spent in Tokyo. That percentage was down to 30.3% in 2013.

(Nikkei)

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