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Japan hosted over 24 million foreign visitors in 2016

Riding five years of growth, government pushes toward massive 2020 target

A record number of foreign tourists packed Japan in 2016.

TOKYO -- Japan's Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Keiichi Ishii said on Tuesday the number of foreign visitors to Japan rose around 20% last year to 24.039 million, marking a record figure and a five-year growth streak. Visitors from Southeast Asia notably increased.

Ishii stressed the record number "is a result of measures such as relaxation of visa requirements and improvements of consumption tax exemptions" as Japan considers the tourism industry a pillar of its growth strategy.

Plenty of travelers last year came from China and South Korea, but growth was slow compared with 2015, when visitors skyrocketed 50% on a weak yen and loosened visa requirements. The yen's temporary surge and earthquakes in Kumamoto Prefecture hampered growth in 2016, as did the Chinese economic slowdown.

Visitors, however, rose significantly from Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Tourism campaigns in those countries helped attract more travelers, as did added airplane routes.

Japan aims to welcome 40 million foreigners in 2020 when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics and is enhancing funding and policy measures. Besides allotting the country's tourism agency a record 25.6 billion yen ($220 million) for fiscal 2017, the prime minister's office has steered government agencies to budget more for tourism-related activities. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has cited tourism as a priority for 2017, aiming particularly to tie it to revitalizing local economies.

Japan's agricultural ministry has earmarked 5 billion yen to promote agri-tourism initiatives. The government is also allotting funds to manage expanding tourism at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and other royal sites nationwide, including the palace in Kyoto. Conscious of terrorism and other safety concerns, the land ministry aims by 2019 to install high-end security devices such as body scanners in major airports nationwide.

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