TOKYO -- Chinese tourists have been a key driver of growth in Japan's tourism industry, with their bakugai, or "explosive buying," in recent years boosting Japan's consumption figures. But as their spending has slowed, some Europeans are overtaking them.
According to a Japan Tourism Agency survey, the British were the most free-spending foreign tourists in Japan from April to June. They spent an average of about 250,000 yen ($2,270) per visit, followed by the Italians, who spent about 230,000 yen.
The Chinese still ranked third, with per capita spending totaling some 220,000 yen, but they were closely followed by the French and Spanish, who shelled out from 200,000 yen to more than 210,000 yen per visit.
Can't take it with you
In contrast to Chinese visitors, who tend to focus on shopping, Europeans are most often interested in experiences. The survey shows British respondents spent 72% of their travel budget on lodging, food and drink and entertainment, compared with 35% for Chinese. While 13% of British travel budgets went to shopping, Chinese spent about 60% on shopping, although that is down from 2015, when the bakugai phenomenon peaked.
Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market is one of the city's tourist magnets where Westerners are often seen. A pair of 30-something Italians were there recently, eating kaisendon -- rice bowls topped with raw fish -- at a restaurant inside the market.
The men, who said they came to Japan to sample Japanese cuisine such as sushi and ramen, were in the country for a monthlong visit, starting in mid-July. They planned to spend 8,000 yen each a day on lodging and food.
European tourists typically do not make big purchases on single items or experiences. Many slurp down cheap ramen noodles. Instead they open their wallets to travel farther afield to see the sights -- hot springs or museums, for example.
European tourists who come to Japan like to stay awhile. The average length of stay for sightseeing in April to June was 14.5 days for British tourists, rising from 12.3 days for the same period in 2015. The figure for Italians also grew to 12 days from 11.5 days over the same period.
The figures for Germans and French tourists declined over the same period, but they are still averaged 14 days and 12.9 days, respectively, both more than twice as long as the Chinese average of 5.9 days.
Total spending by foreign tourists in Japan reached a record 2.04 trillion yen in the first half of this year. Mizuho Research Institute estimates the amount of added value created by tourist spending will reach 4 trillion yen if spending maintains its current pace in the second half of this year. That translates to an additional 0.8% in nominal gross domestic product.
The Japanese government has set a target of 8 trillion yen in foreign tourist spending by 2020, twice the most recent annual figure.
Takayuki Miyajima of Mizuho Research Institute said the amount of spending needs to rise, not just the number of foreign tourists, if that expenditure is to contribute significantly to Japan's consumption. In particular, offering services and products that meet tourists' desire for experiences, not just their needs, is key, he said.
Chinese visitors, more than 6 million of whom came to Japan in 2016, still far outnumber Europeans. By way of comparison, just under 300,000 British tourists came to Japan that year. Thus, increasing the number of deep-pocketed European travelers is also important for the Japanese economy, experts say.
Show me around
Which raises the question of what Europeans want to see and do in Japan. A pair of Spanish visitors in their 20s said they enjoy the historic townscapes of Japan, but that its unique contemporary culture is also an attraction, citing the popular anime character Pokemon, and anime production Studio Ghibli. Arashiyama, a scenic district, and the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto also left a strong impression, they said.
Japan's culinary traditions and anime brought a French married couple in their 20s to Japan. The woman said she and her husband worried about terrorism anywhere in the world other than Japan. They were on day 10 of a 15-day trip, and had spent about 200,000 yen on sake and anime goods.
A Portuguese family, parents in their 50s and a daughter in her 20s, traveled around the Kansai region of western Japan, Nikko, north of Tokyo, and Tokyo over 11 days. They said they especially appreciated the beauty of the country's forests and mountains.
Four friends from Germany were using Airbnb, an online private room rental service. Their aim was to experience local culture, they said. A pair from Spain also chose Airbnb and were staying at private homes. They said hotels are too expensive for their budget, and that they were satisfied with their lodging.