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Travel & Leisure

Japan's 40m-visitor goal already a reach amid China drop-off

Traffic set to slow further from virus outbreak, putting this year's growth in doubt

Visitors from China dropped about 20% from a year earlier during the Lunar New Year holiday. (Photo by Karina Noka)

TOKYO -- Japan's prospects of welcoming 40 million international visitors as planned in 2020 are already starting to fade as the new coronavirus cuts into the flow of Chinese travelers.

Japan drew 2.66 million visitors from abroad in January, down 1.1% on the year, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. This owed mainly to South Koreans being far less inclined to visit amid bilateral trade frictions since last summer. Travelers from South Korea numbered 316,800, down 59.4%.

Although visitors from China jumped 22.6% to a January record of 924,800, flights and cruise ships from the country have plunged since late January, according to the Japan Tourism Agency. There were about 20% fewer Chinese travelers during the Lunar New Year peak travel period of Jan. 24 to Feb. 2.

The China numbers are sure to drop precipitously in February and beyond amid coronavirus-inspired travel bans there, fueling pessimism even within the Japanese government that "it may even be challenging to maintain year-on-year growth in inbound travelers," let alone reach 40 million, as one official put it.

The annual target had been seen as overly ambitious from the start, exceeding last year's tally of 31.88 million by 25%. Skeptics have pointed out the overreliance on traffic from China, South Korea and elsewhere in East Asia.

With 9.59 million visitors from China and 5.58 million from South Korea last year, the two countries together accounted for around half of all international arrivals. The outbreak makes it all the more apparent that attracting visitors broadly from Europe, the U.S. and Southeast Asia is essential to meeting the goal.

Communities across Japan enjoyed the cash brought in by the growing influx of foreigners -- particularly Chinese, who were responsible for nearly 40% of all inbound tourism spending. Tourism businesses and retailers in smaller cities and towns are bracing for the blow from losing such revenue. The government has pledged financial support as a temporary measure, but businesses will likely ask for additional help.

The rise in domestic infections may also reduce Japan's appeal. The country has been targeted by a travel advisory from Thailand, which in 2019 trailed only China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the U.S. as a source of visitors.

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