TOKYO -- Japan is gaining popularity as a cruise destination.
A total of 416,000 foreign visitors came to Japanese shores on cruise ships and high-speed ferries last year. The government, apparently recognizing passengers' proclivity for dropping large sums of money at the country's ports of call, aims to raise the figure to 1 million by 2020.
Canal City Hakata, a shopping and entertainment complex in the southwestern city of Fukuoka, was packed with Chinese tourists one afternoon in mid-April. They had disembarked from a cruise ship that sailed from Shanghai via Jeju, South Korea.
When the cruise docked, roughly 2,300 passengers -- most of them Chinese -- climbed into about 60 buses and set off for a tour of the Fukuoka area. Stops included Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine and Fukuoka Tower. With sightseeing out of the way, many wrapped up their visit with a shopping spree at Canal City.
One 45-year-old man who owns a company in Shanghai said he spent at least 500,000 yen ($4,127) on a watch and women's cosmetics. He showed the box of a Seiko Astron wrapped in a duty-free store's plastic bag.
A 44-year-old woman from Hubei Province who was traveling with her husband spent roughly 20,000 yen on a rice cooker and a fishing rod. She said coming by sea is ideal for those with lengthy shopping lists, since cruise ships can carry more baggage than aircraft.
A representative of the shopping mall estimated that the number of visitors off of boats increased 700% in the fiscal year through March, to 180,000. These shoppers contributed some 5-10% of Canal City's annual sales of 45 billion yen.
Japan's tourism ministry reckons the average cruise ship passenger from abroad spends 30,000 yen to 40,000 yen at each port.
Here they come
Large groups of tourists are descending upon places that used to see little traffic. In late April, for example, roughly 70 passengers on a cruise from the U.S. visited Seiryuji Temple in Aomori Prefecture. The spot is off the beaten path for even Japanese tourists. The temple's 21-meter-tall bronze statue of a seated Buddha, the country's largest, was built three decades ago.
About 140 passengers ended up admiring the cherry blossoms at the northern prefecture's Hirosaki Park. An American tourist in his 60s, there with his wife, expressed appreciation for the Japanese tradition of having picnics with friends and family while gazing at the blooms. The visitors had a chance to sample Aomori's specialty produce: apples.
Last year, roughly 80% of the 14,000 tourists who arrived by ship in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture, were foreigners. One of the city's claims to fame is Mizuki Shigeru Road, a path lined with 134 bronze statues of yokai characters created by cartoonist Shigeru Mizuki. Yokai are supernatural monsters derived from Japanese folklore.
Western tourists to the area typically check out the Adachi Museum of Art in nearby Yasugi, Shimane Prefecture, and Matsue Castle in the Shimane city of Matsue -- a 40-minute drive from Sakaiminato. Tourists from China, meanwhile, seem drawn to the Gosho Aoyama Manga Factory, a museum in Hokuei, Tottori Prefecture.
Port officials are doing their part to get travelers to come and spend. Michiko Seki, a leader at the Sakai Port Authority, has been taking into account feedback from cruise passengers who have stopped at the makeshift stores and restaurants on the quay. Seki stressed the need to keep building interest in Sakaiminato.
More affordable than you think
JTB Global Marketing & Travel has noticed a big increase in demand for cruises that stop in Japan. According to Yoshitaka Okuma, general manager of market development at the Japanese travel agency, Western cruise lines are increasingly calling at Japanese ports to meet demand from Chinese tourists.
JTB's sales of Japan-bound cruise packages have grown by about 100% over the last four or five years.
The yen's weakness has made the country a more attractive destination for tourists in general. And booking a cruise is not as expensive as it once was. Miki Tourist, an agent for maritime companies in the U.S. and Europe, says a midrange cruise package that stops in Japan between other ports can be had for only $100 to $150 per night, including meals. That price, an official of the Tokyo-based agency noted, is less than the going rate for a room at a nice on-shore hotel in Japan.
However, Anthony Kaufman, senior vice president of Asia operations at Princess Cruises of the U.S., said Japan's port authorities need to increase the number of docking berths. He said some ports on Caribbean islands can accommodate six to eight vessels at a time.
Kaufman said Japanese ports have a lot going for them as cruise destinations, with their proximity to historic sites and unique food. But he added that Japanese port authorities ought to be more attuned to the needs of boat operators. Otherwise, he suggested, South Korea and Taiwan might gain the upper hand.
Photo caption 1: Yokohama's Osanbashi Pier serves as a gateway to Japan for cruise passengers from China and the West.
Photo caption 2: Tourists purchase locally grown apples in Aomori Prefecture's Hirosaki Park.