TOKYO -- Foreign traffic to Japan has surpassed the 20 million mark this year, data released Monday shows, but the country needs to promote hidden gems and improve in other areas to join the ranks of top global tourist destinations.
One major tourist attraction, the annual Cycling Shimanami event, kicked off on Sunday with roughly 3,500 participants pedaling down the scenic Shimanami Kaido, a 60km road-and-bridge network connecting Japan's main island of Honshu and the western island of Shikoku. Among the cyclists, 7% came from outside Japan.
Taiwanese and other Asian nationalities made up the bulk of the foreigners, though Westerners also had a significant presence. CNN designated Shimanami as one of seven of the world's most "incredible" bike routes, and both Hiroshima and Ehime prefectures helped promote it.
However, such success stories are few and far between. Of the visitors to Japan during the first nine months of the year, 74% came from China, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The middle class is rising in the Asian region, leading to a surging demand in tourism. But the tides risk shifting in the event of an Asian economic slowdown or souring international relations. Whether Japan can lure more visitors from Western nations and other regions will determine whether it can attain its target of attracting 40 million tourists annually by 2020.
Tourist destinations outside of "golden route" locations like Tokyo and Osaka have large margins for growth. Although many foreign tourists are familiar with the likes of Mt. Fuji, Okinawa and Kyoto, less than 10% are aware of locations such as Kamakura, Nara, Oirase, the Ise Grand Shrine or Shiretoko, according to U.S. consultancy McKinsey & Co.
France, Britain and other top destinations are busy luring travelers to infrequently visited areas, said Tasuku Kuwabara, a partner at McKinsey. France, for its part, draws 80 million tourists a year.
Shimane Prefecture in western Japan housed the fewest foreign lodgers among all 47 prefectures in 2015. Although Shimane has many tourist spots such as the Izumo Taisha shrine, its international name recognition is minimal. If the prefecture advertised the recreational pleasures offered by the Oki Islands, Mt. Sanbe and other natural spots, more international tourists would come, said Ross Findlay, who runs an outdoor adventure business in the northern town of Niseko, Hokkaido.
Another concern is that the rise in visitors to Japan has not been accompanied by a bounce in consumption. The shopping sprees of the past have died down, and tourists spent only 155,000 yen ($1,474) per person between July and September, down more than 30,000 yen from a year earlier. Travelers would have to spend 200,000 yen each to meet government targets.
"There is a limit to tourism promotion that is dependent on product purchases," said Takeshi Okano, head researcher at the Daiwa Institute of Research and an expert on tourism policy. "The number of trips where travelers stay for specific purposes needs to increase."
If those destinations are able to attract trips for training, medical or educational purposes, it would lead to repeat travelers and longer-term stays.
The explosion in tourists is one of the few bright spots in Japan, which is dealing with a shrinking population and a slower potential growth rate. But the country still draws fewer foreign tourists than Asian rivals Thailand and Malaysia, meaning there is a lot more work ahead.