The number of Chinese visitors to Japan exceeded the number of Americans for the first time in 2007, data published on Monday showed, highlighting a boom in regional tourism fuelled by Asia’s growing wealth.
The Japan National Tourist Organisation, a government-supported body, said the total number of tourists entering Asia’s wealthiest and most expensive destination climbed 14 per cent to a record 8.35m.
The number of mainland Chinese visitors surged 16 per cent to more than 943,000, while the number of Americans fell slightly to just under 816,000.
The JNTO attributed the growth in Chinese visitors to Japan to the increase in the disposable income of China’s growing middle class, improved air links between the countries and events last year to mark the 35th anniversary of the normalisation of Sino-Japanese relations.
Chinese have flocked to Japan to visit Tokyo Disneyland, to shop in the city’s Akihabara gadget district and to ski in the Japanese Alps. Some Tokyo electronics shops offer Mandarin-speaking guides to help shoppers fill their carts.
South Koreans remained the most numerous visitors at 2.6m, up 22 per cent from 2006, followed by Taiwanese at 1.39m. Mainland Chinese were third, followed by visitors from the US, Hong Kong and Australia.
In addition to visiting Japan in greater numbers, foreigners are spending more. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, the number of Japan-bound tourists doubled between 1990 and 2004 while Japan’s total tourism receipts tripled, to $11.3bn (€7.6bn, £5.7bn).
Japan is a long way from beating France as the world’s top tourist destination – the latter attracts about 75m visitors a year – but the Japanese government is, nonetheless, pushing tourism as a strategic industry and has set a target of 10m visitors by 2010.
It hopes that the increase in tourist numbers will help offset chronically weak domestic consumer spending and revitalise scenic but remote parts of Japan, such as the northern island of Hokkaido, that in some cases are closer to China or South Korea than to rich and populous Tokyo.
As part of its largely Asia-focused tourism push, the government has been working with Beijing to boost air links between Japan and China. At least 20 new routes were added in 2007, according to the JNTO.
Providing that tighter immigration checks introduced late last year do not deter visitors, it appears on track to meet its goal.
Japan remains a net exporter of tourists, however. About 17.3m Japanese went abroad last year, down 1.3 per cent from 2006.