TOKYO -- A historic flood of overseas tourists is proving a gold mine for the Japanese economy.
Spending by the visitors skyrocketed 82% from a year earlier to 1.0009 trillion yen ($8 billion) during the quarter ended in September, according to an announcement Wednesday by the Japan Tourism Agency, the first time quarterly consumption crossed the trillion yen mark. A record 5.34 million tourists came during the period, and per-capita expenditure climbed 18% on the year.
Foreign travelers to Japan spent 2.59 trillion yen the first nine months of the year. The figure soared 77% from a year earlier and trumps the over 2 trillion yen record buying spree for the whole of 2014.
"We expect consumption [by tourists] to exceed 3 trillion yen this year," the agency's commissioner, Akihiko Tamura, told the Wednesday press conference.
Foreign visitors jumped 47% in September to 1.61 million, according to a Wednesday announcement from the Japan National Tourism Organization. The Japan Tourism Agency said over 15 million tourists had come to Japan in 2015 as of Oct. 9, beating the 13.4 million who came during the entirety of 2014. The number may reach 20 million by the end of the year.
July-September per-capita spending by Chinese tourists soared 19% from the year-earlier quarter to 280,000 yen. Of that, 140,000 yen went toward shopping. Chinese vacationers stayed an average of 6.1 nights, exceeding the 5.7 nights of a year earlier. Experts believe longer stays add to per-capita spending.
September purchases by tourists nearly tripled from the same month last year, according to data from the Japan Department Stores Association. Department store operator Takashimaya reported tax-exempt sales to Chinese customers during the weeklong October break marking the founding of the People's Republic of China more than doubled from a year earlier. Jewelry company Mikimoto says July-September tax-free sales at its main store in Tokyo's Ginza district rose 20%.
Foreign visitors made up at least half the sales at the Sanyo Ginza Tower, run by clothier Sanyo Shokai. Shoe seller ABC-Mart says purchases made with UnionPay cards, typically used by Chinese travelers, more than quadrupled in September compared with a year earlier.
Covering lost ground
For the Japanese economy, the tourist spending represents a bright spot compared with the dour trade figures announced the same day. Although Japan's exports for September grew 0.6% by value from a year earlier, exports to China fell 3.5%, according to preliminary data released by the Finance Ministry. The Chinese economic malaise is spreading to other Asian countries, as exports to South Korea dipped 7.5% while those to Thailand slipped 2.8%.
In volume terms, Japanese exports dropped 3.9% overall. Steel tumbled 10.9% while electronic parts sank 8.1%. Exports to Asian countries fell 4.2%, with those to China down 5.7%. "Export volume is unlikely to grow if Southeast Asian demand does not pick up," said Atsushi Takeda, chief economist at the Itochu Economic Research Institute.
The government counts goods and services purchased in Japan by overseas tourists as a type of export when calculating gross domestic product. Annual exports came to around 70 trillion yen to 80 trillion yen during the past few years. If foreign visitors do indeed spend 3 trillion yen on Japanese soil, they may represent around 4% of exports for this year's GDP.