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Economy

Foreign tourists enrich areas beyond Japan's sightseeing corridor

Repeat visitors venture off Tokyo-Osaka-Kyoto 'golden route'

Destinations like Shirakawa-go, famous for its traditional houses, are gaining popularity among visitors to Japan. (Photo by Masayuki Kozono)

TOKYO -- Visitors to Japan spent roughly 1.8 trillion yen ($16.4 billion) outside Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto in 2018, exceeding their consumption in the capital, as the growing influx of tourists prompts people to choose alternate destinations.

Inbound consumption came to 4.8 trillion yen, according to the Japan Tourism Agency. Spending was greatest at 1.75 trillion yen in Tokyo, 874 billion yen in Osaka and 290 billion yen in Kyoto. The three cities are called the golden route as Japan's most popular destinations for foreigners.

But consumption by visitors from abroad grew 39% in the 44 prefectures outside Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto since 2015, against just 16% for the capital. Their total spending in those areas was more than 10% short of outlays in Tokyo alone for 2015 but was 4% higher than in Tokyo last year. Although Tokyo towers above the rest, consumption in other regions is starting to grow.

New sightseeing routes outside Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are growing in popularity. Spending in the nine prefectures making up the dragon-shaped Shoryudo Route, with Ishikawa Prefecture's Noto Peninsula at the head and Central Japan International Airport at the tail, soared 41% in three years to 324 billion yen -- outpacing the golden route's 36% growth.

The city of Nanto in Toyama Prefecture is home to Gokayama, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is on the Shoryudo route and known for its traditional Japanese houses. At the visitors' center is a board for tourists to put stickers showing where they traveled from. "Recently, we have been running out of places to put the stickers," an official from the Nanto tourism office said. Many visitors apparently come from Taiwan and Hong Kong, which have direct flights connecting with Central Japan International Airport.

Nagoya Railroad is offering an unlimited pass for buses between Central Japan International Airport and Kanazawa. The company sold 20,000 passes from last April to this January, up 10% on the year.

Spending in the seven prefectures constituting the Setouchi route, which includes the Seto Inland Sea and coastal areas of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, has increased 78% to 158.5 billion yen since 2015. Foreign media have pointed out the region as a good destination for tourists.

The Shimanami bicycle route, connecting Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture with Imabari in Ehime Prefecture, is one popular attraction. Tourists are often seen loading bikes onto specialized boats that connect the two areas. Setouchi Cruising began service for its Cycleship LazuLi, which can carry bicycles, in October.

Behind the growth in these lesser-known areas is growth in repeat visitors to Japan. About 60% of visitors were traveling to Japan for a second time or more in 2018, according to the JTA. While dependence on Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto remains high, the rise in repeat travelers is diversifying their tastes in destinations.

Regional tourist destinations cannot compete against Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto alone, said Takayuki Miyajima of the Mizuho Research Institute. "They will be able to lure more visitors by complementing their attractiveness through regional cooperation," Miyajima said.

But so-called tourism pollution is impacting life in such prime destinations as Kyoto. The need to cope with such issues is growing in areas increasingly popular with visitors.

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