TOKYO -- Visitors flocked to Japan in record numbers during the January-June half, venturing beyond Kyoto, Mount Fuji and other perennial favorite destinations and giving a variety of industries a boost.
Tourist numbers jumped 46% on the year to 9.13 million, with Chinese visitors nearly doubling to 2.17 million, figures released Wednesday by the Japan National Tourism Organization show. South Korean and Taiwanese visitors rose 43% and 29%, respectively.
"We see full-year numbers reaching around 18 million," Shigeto Kubo, commissioner of the Japan Tourism Agency, told reporters Wednesday. That figure would be an enormous jump from 2014's 13.41 million visitors. By seasonally adjusting June's tourism number, SMBC Nikko Securities came up with an annualized figure of 19.44 million visitors, close to the 20 million benchmark.
Many tourists still travel the "golden route" including Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka or visit other popular sites including Mount Fuji. But with a rise in repeat visitors, less-traveled roads are seeing new traffic.
A cruise packed with 3,200 Chinese travelers docked Wednesday in the coastal city of Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture. Ninety buses took the travelers into the scenic area, visiting the mountain Daisen and the storied Izumo Grand Shrine. One family of five from the central Chinese city of Xian, Shaanxi Province, had their whole day planned: "We're going to visit Matsue Castle, then spend the afternoon at drugstores and tax-free shops around the harbor," they said.
Tourists also are taking an interest in traditional arts and industries, particularly those that offer hands-on experience. A producer of wax models of food in Gujo, Gifu Prefecture, sees buses packed with foreign tourists almost daily. Visitors can try their hand at dribbling hot wax into water to imitate everything from tempura to vegetables.
Media tourism is another big draw. Visitors from around Asia flock to a railroad crossing next to an unmanned station in the seaside town of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. It bears a striking resemblance to one that appears in an animated TV program popular overseas.
Merchants are also responding to demand by Muslim populations from Indonesia, Malaysia and other Asian countries who are heading to Japan in greater numbers. Tokyu Department Store held a weeklong halal food exhibit that ended Wednesday at its flagship location in Tokyo's Shibuya ward.
"Many visitors wish to enjoy Japanese flavors without having to worry about dietary restrictions," one buyer for the store said. "Our ramen and curry products are particularly popular." Sales from the event were 20% above expectations.
Some companies feared volatility in the Shanghai stock market would dampen spending by Chinese visitors, but sales to tourists at Takashimaya department stores rose 200% on the year between July 1 and July 10. "Sales of high-end brand bags and other expensive products were unaffected," a representative said.
Tax-free-shop operator Laox said "there were no major hits to customer growth or other numbers" and predicted that "current visitor trends will not change."
Businesses have increased investment to court new demand. Daimaru Matsuzakaya Department Stores will close its flagship Daimaru Shinsaibashi branch in Osaka for renovations before the end of the year. The company plans to move brand goods popular among foreign visitors into its south wing, which it will continue operating during the renovation as a base for tax-free products.
If visitors do reach 18 million this year, their spending and related investment could boost Japan's gross domestic product by around 4 trillion yen ($32.05 billion), said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.