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Coronavirus

China tour ban dampens spirits in Japan over Lunar New Year

Hotels slash prices to fill wave of vacancies amid virus outbreak

Drugstores on Osaka's Shinsaibashi-suji shopping avenue vie to attract Chinese tourists. (Photo by Jo Tamura)

TOKYO -- China's ban on outbound tour groups, a measure to contain the coronavirus outbreak there, has left tourism-reliant Japanese companies scrambling to make up for lost business and sapped vitality from places usually full of energy during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Hotel Ilfiore Kasai in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward has been inundated with cancellations for 1,100 room reservations in February -- roughly a third of all its reservations for the month.

With the decline in Chinese tourism coming on top of the Japan-South Korea diplomatic chill, "this is the worst it's been since the Great East Japan Earthquake" and tsunami of March 2011, the proprietor said.

But this boss has not sat idly by, opting to slash the price of a single room to 5,200 yen ($48) a night from 8,000 yen.

"When hotels downtown cut their prices, I cut mine," the proprietor said.

Hotel Ilfiore has partnered with an overseas booking website to attract guests from markets beyond China. It is also working to draw Japanese visitors in the area for school trips or work training.

If Beijing keeps the ban in place for long, the Japanese economy could feel the pinch. Chinese tourists spent 1.77 trillion yen ($16.2 billion) in Japan last year, accounting for nearly 40% of all travel-related consumption. Shopping made up the largest share by far at 936.6 billion yen, followed by accommodations and food.

The decline in tourism has quieted shopping districts normally bustling with activity during China's busiest travel season.

About 20 people, mainly Chinese, lined up to wait at the doors of a Uniqlo store in Tokyo's ritzy Ginza district when it opened at 11 a.m. on Wednesday. This was far fewer than the typical Lunar New Year crowd.

"Sometimes the line reaches all the way out here," said an employee of a store two buildings over.

As a global flagship for the Fast Retailing brand, the Ginza store usually draws busloads of tourists from China and elsewhere. But not this time.

"It's a store designed with inbound tourism in mind, so [the ban] had a major impact," a Uniqlo source said.

Osaka's Shinsaibashi-suji shopping street is another hot spot for foreign visitors that has been less lively amid the ban.

More than 30 drugstores sit on a 1 km stretch extending along the covered avenue and into the Namba area to the south. A Tsuruha Drug store in the middle of the shopping strip features a display with a Chinese-language message of encouragement for China and Wuhan, the city at the epicenter of the outbreak.

Customer traffic has dropped by half since the ban was imposed on Monday, the store manager said.

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