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Business trends

Asia's budget airlines flock to Tokyo, lifting Japan's tourism

Narita and Haneda airports' combined international flights up 12% in 3 years

Budget carriers and other airlines are adding international flights at Narita Airport, giving a lift to Japan's foreign tourism. (Courtesy of Narita International Airport)

TOKYO -- Tokyo is seeing an increase in international air traffic as more budget carriers, particularly from Southeast Asia, begin flying to the metropolitan area.

Narita and Haneda airports had 2,562 international flights -- a round-trip counts as one flight -- a week during the period from late March to late October, rising for the third straight year and up 12% from the same period three years earlier.

"Southeast Asia and other" saw the biggest increase in international flights to Tokyo by region, rising by 100.5 flights, or 18%, to 650.5 flights. The second-largest increase came from South Korea. Flights to China -- which restricts departure and arrival slots at airports in the Tokyo area -- rose by just 26 flights (7%). Flights to North America declined by eight flights (2%).

Budget airlines are bringing more international traffic to Tokyo. In December, Thai Lion Air has begun flying between Bangkok and Narita, its first service to Japan. Vietnam's Vietjet Air also launched flights between Hanoi and Narita in January and plans to start service between Ho Chi Minh City and Narita in July.

South Korean budget carriers are also flocking to Tokyo. Jeju Air started service between Muan and Narita in March. T'Way Air, Jin Air and Eastar Jet are also adding flights.

"Budget carriers are important partners, who underpin Narita's growth in short-haul routes to an ever-growing Asia," said a representative of Narita International Airport Corp., which runs the facility.

Frequent, short-haul flights fatten revenue at airports and commercial sales in passenger terminals. "We hope that an increase in the number of budget carriers will help us attract more diverse customers," said the company representative.

Flights to Haneda, which serves mostly domestic travelers, have not grown as quickly as at Narita due to strict government rules on departures and arrivals. All Nippon Airways' service to Vienna, which began in February, is one of the few new routes added at Haneda in recent months.

Haneda's proximity to central Tokyo is a plus for foreign visitors to Japan. "International arrival halls get so crowded from afternoon to evening every day that people just cannot walk straight," said a representative of Tokyo International Air Terminal, which operates the airport. "We are already operating at full capacity and we have a limited space to add new flights. We will have to wait for the government's expansion plan to come out," the spokesman said.

Narita will play a key role in bringing more international visitors to Tokyo until the planned increase in slots at Haneda in 2020. Kansai International Airport, in western Japan, and other regional airports are also adding international flights.

"Airports may have become a drag on foreign tourist numbers in Tokyo," said Shingo Mochimaru, principal at Nomura Research Institute.

With overseas tourists in Japan topping 30 million for the first time in 2018, the government target of 40 million international visitors seems within reach. Improving the operation of airports in the Tokyo area will be key to bringing them in smoothly.

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