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Business trends

Japan cruise ports lose Chinese traffic to Southeast Asia

Hakata and Nagasaki see decline while Yokohama and Kobe gain European ships

Overseas visitors arrive at Japan's Nagasaki Port. The port faces the East China Sea and is a popular destination for large vessels from Shanghai, but competition with Southeast Asian ports is rising. (Photo by Takuya Imai)

TOKYO -- Hakata and Nagasaki in southwestern Japan are losing their luster as ports of call for cruise ships from China, as Chinese vacationers increasingly head for Southeast Asia.

On the other hand, Japanese ports popular with European cruise passengers are thriving.

International cruise vessels are expected to call on Japan's top 10 ports 667 times in the first half of this year, down 3% from January-June 2018, according to port projections compiled by Nikkei Inc. These 10 ports account for about 70% of all visits by foreign cruise ships.

The anticipated decline would continue a nationwide trend. Foreign cruise ships made 1,913 port calls in Japan in 2018, marking the first decline in five years, according to the Tourism Agency. Visits peaked in 2017 with a record 2,013.

Nagasaki, the third-most popular destination, is bracing for the steepest drop of 32% to 80 port calls for the first half of this year.

"We hear that Chinese tourists, who account for a majority of cruise passengers, are going elsewhere," said a tourism official for Nagasaki Prefecture on the southwestern island of Kyushu. The prefecture's port, on the East China Sea, was frequently visited by large vessels from Shanghai in the past. But these cruise ships are apparently sailing to Southeast Asia these days, he said.

The change of destination may be related to the emergence of Xiamen, formerly known as Amoy, as a major Chinese port accommodating cruise ships as travel demand grows. Ships departing Xiamen, which is south of Shanghai and near Taiwan, may be heading to nearby destinations in Southeast Asia, the Nagasaki official surmises.

Another port in northern Kyushu, Hakata -- Japan's second-most popular stop -- expects a 17% decline to 99 port calls. Cruise companies that lost out in price wars after new entrants flooded the market have suspended their Kyushu trips, local officials said.

Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, remains a hot destination, with its ports of No. 1 Naha, fourth-ranked Hirara and fifth-place Ishigaki apparently getting a boost from their proximity to Xiamen. Of the 135 anticipated port calls at Naha, a fifth will be coming from the Fujian Province city.

Elsewhere in Japan, eighth-ranked Yokohama anticipates a 41% jump in port calls for the first six months of 2019. The Tokyo Bay port is welcoming its first calls by big ships that departed Europe on world cruises like the Columbus and the Albatros. The port of Kobe, in the Osaka region, also anticipates an 18% increase, including ships making Pacific Ocean voyages and around-the-world trips.

"With competition growing intense, some of the [cruise] ships that used to call at northern Kyushu destinations have shifted to Southeast Asia or Europe," said Yoko Hayano, senior consultant at JTB Tourism Research & Consulting. "Even among the cruise ships that do come to Japan, they will increasingly call on less popular ports."

The shifting trends come as the government works to make Japan a leading tourist destination. It aims to double foreign cruise passengers visiting the country to 5 million in 2020 from 2.45 million in 2018.

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