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Travel & Leisure

Japan under pressure as competition for Chinese tourists hots up

10-million visitor milestone in sight, but pace of growth slows

Japan is the most popular overseas destination for Chinese tourists, along with Thailand. (Photo by Takashi Kawakami)

GUANGZHOU -- As the number of people from China traveling abroad continues to increase, Japan's status as a favored destination is under increasing pressure from international competition to capture the lucrative Chinese tourist market.

The number of visitors to Japan from China continues to grow, rising 14% in the first 11 months of 2019 from a year earlier to 8.88 million, moving closer to the milestone of 10 million visitors in one year.

But the pace of growth has slowed down since 2014-15, when the number doubled, amid increasing competition from other countries in Asia and Europe.

It seems there may be room for improvement in Japan's current approach to Chinese tourists. One Chinese traveler with experience of Japan vented grievances such as, "hotels are difficult to book" and "tax exemption procedures are cumbersome."

"Japan-bound tours during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) holiday have already mostly sold out," said an official in charge at GZL International Travel Service, a major travel agency in Guangzhou, southern China.

In China, the Spring Festival holiday of 2020 begins in late January. "Many people have booked (Japan-bound tours) since October," the official said, adding that the most popular destination is Osaka.

The number of visitors to Japan from China, excluding those from Taiwan and Hong Kong, has continued to increase since 2014 after slumping around 2012, when massive anti-Japanese demonstrations continued in China over the issue of Tokyo's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The group of small uninhabited islets are also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), the number of visitors to Japan from China totaled 8.38 million in 2018, more than trebling from 2.4 million in 2014.

European countries such as Switzerland have stepped up efforts to lure tourists from southern China.   © Reuters

In China, Japan is the most popular overseas tourist destination, along with Thailand.

Many Chinese tourists now visit not only the major cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, but also various other parts of Japan, including Kyushu and Shikoku, two of the country's four main islands.

They do so partly because Japan is geographically close to China and travel costs are relatively low, and partly because they want to experience Japanese culture, among other reasons.

In the past, many Chinese tourists visiting Japan have been from major cities in the northern and central parts of China such as Beijing and Shanghai. But the number of tourists from southern China, such as Guangdong, has risen significantly over the past few years.

International competition to attract Chinese tourists is intensifying. Thailand, Vietnam and other countries in Asia and Europe have recently stepped up efforts to lure tourists from southern China.

There is a growing sense of a problem in the Japanese tourism industry, with one official saying, "Japan has so far seen many Chinese tourists come, even if it does nothing in particular (to attract them). But Japan is now losing the competition with other countries."

In the face of this challenge, Japan has started stepping up public and private-sector activities aimed at bringing in Chinese tourists.

The JNTO opened a new office in Guangzhou on Dec. 19. It is the organization's third office in mainland China after ones in Beijing and Shanghai. The JNTO opened its Guangzhou office to transmit more Japanese tourism information in southern China and expand its support for related companies.

JTB (Guangzhou) International Tours, a subsidiary of top Japanese travel agency JTB, has also plowed efforts into supporting tourism to Japan since 2018. The subsidiary now holds seminars more often to provide businesses in Japan's tourism industry such as hotels and traditional Japanese "ryokan" inns, with expertise on how to lure customers.

"In the future, careful marketing taking into account factors such as gender and age will become necessary," said the subsidiary's president Akiji Tsujimoto.

Many Chinese people who have already visited Japan or are interested in doing so have pointed to some problems, although they tend to be satisfied with or have high expectations for such trips.

A 29-year-old woman working at a financial company in Foshan, Guangdong Province, who gave only her family name as Liang, plans to travel to Kyushu with three friends in February 2020. She said she wants to go to Mount Aso and enjoy an "onsen" hot spring during the trip.

But Liang said, "Japan's lodging-related websites are difficult for foreign nationals to use."

Liang had a particular gripe that when she visited a hotel website to book a room, she was required to register a telephone number and address in Japan, as foreign nationals' use of the site had apparently not been considered. Liang also said she could not find a hotel to stay in a rural area.

A 31-year-old woman working at an information technology company in Guangzhou, who gave only her surname as Chen, also plans to sightsee in Tokyo and Hokkaido with two family members during the Spring Festival holiday of 2020. Chen said she felt that visa procedures were cumbersome. "I had a lot of trouble because I had to submit many documents such as identification papers. It was easier to acquire a visa for South Korea," she said.

Complaints about transport and accessibility in Japan are often heard among Chinese tourists.   © AP

A 31-year-old man working in Chengdu City, who gave only his last name as Chen, visits Japan two or three times a year. Although he has been highly satisfied with the trips overall, he had complaints about the transport options in Japan.

Chen said, "Taxi fares are very high, so trains are effectively the only means of transportation for foreign tourists."

"But in addition to differences between JR trains and between subway trains, there are various types of trains such as 'futsu (local),' 'tokkyu (limited express)' and 'junkyu (semi-express)' trains. They are difficult to understand," he said.

Chen also said that although there are many Chinese tourists in Japan, the number of signs in the Chinese language seems to be relatively small.

Complaints about accessible facilities in Japan are also common. Chinese tourists may no longer go on such massive shopping sprees in Japan as they used to, but they do still often buy many products before returning home, resulting in having heavy baggage to lug around.

"There are many places with no escalators. For those who have large suitcases, it is extremely inconvenient," Chen said.

There are also grievances stemming from differences in lifestyle between China and Japan. In China, for example, the custom is to drink hot rather than cold water with meals.

A 28-year-old woman working at an animal hospital in Guangzhou, who gave only her family name as Chen, visited Tokyo and Hokkaido in mid-December. "Restaurants do not serve hot drinks, so I put hot water in my flask and carried it," she said.

In China, cup noodles usually contain plastic forks. A woman in her 20s working in Shanghai was surprised to discover that is not the case for cup noodles sold in Japan. After deliberating over how to solve the problem, she eventually ate a cup noodle using two toothbrushes in her hotel room, she said.

Some Chinese also complain that since there are not many garbage cans on the streets in Japan, they do not know where to throw away trash, while others complain that they must wait in line for a long time to go through tax exemption procedures.

Visitors from China account for the largest percentage -- about 30% -- of overall foreign visitors to Japan. Although relying excessively on China for tourism also carries risks, efforts to cash in on growing travel demand from China are essential.

For Japan, 2020 will mark a milestone year as the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be held in Tokyo. It seems that Japan still needs to push ahead with efforts to make foreign visitors, including Chinese, enjoy holidays in the country enough to want to return.

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