Japanese travellers appear to be taking a rest

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Japan’s outbound travel boom appears to be over after reporting three years of stagnation. The good news is that Japanese arrivals to Thailand are bucking the trend.

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Japan’s outbound travel boom appears to be over after reporting three years of stagnation. The good news is that Japanese arrivals to Thailand are bucking the trend.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organisation, outbound Japanese travellers totalled 17.4 million in 2005, up a slight 0.8% to 17.5 million in 2006, and are projected to have slumped 1.3% to 17.3 million in 2007. On the other hand, inbound arrivals are surging, from 6.72 million in 2005 to 7.3 million in 2006 and up again by 13.8% to 8.3 million in 2007.

Although the goal of attaining 20 million outbound travellers by 2010 is now looking slightly elusive, the goal of 10 million inbound travellers in the same year is looking well within reach.

Many of the destinations once hugely popular with Japanese visitors are reporting downturns.

Arrivals to Australia were down 12% to 573,000 in 2007, according to Tourism Australia. The US Office of Travel & Tourism Industries reported Japanese arrivals down 4% in November 2007. “Japan accounted for 5% of all Asian visitors so far in 2007 and is the only major market this year with a decline in traffic,” the US OTTI said. Arrivals to the Philippines were down 6.4% to 395,012.

However, some countries are doing well, including Thailand. Japanese visitors at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport totalled 1.17 million in 2007, up 4.8% over 2006. This number will be even higher after the direct arrivals into other international gateways like Phuket are tabulated.

Arrivals to Malaysia in Jan-Nov 2007 were up 3% to 335,230. Full-year arrivals to Vietnam, a popular new destination for the Japanese, were up 7% to 411,557. Booming strongly is China which recorded 3.65 million Japanese visitors during January to November and is clearly set to achieve a full-year 2007 total that will exceed the 3.74 million Japanese arrivals in 2006.

Japanese travel industry analysts are puzzled over the changes. Kentaro Sakai, a consultant at Japan Tourism Marketing (JTM), said, “Ever since overseas travel was deregulated in 1964, Japan has seen decline due to five factors: the second oil crisis in 1980, the Gulf War in 1991, Asia’s financial crisis in 1998, 9-11 terror attack in 2001 and Sars epidemics and the Iraq War in 2003.”

So what accounts for the drop in 2007?

“Recent travel trends including market’s maturity, young people’s loss of interest in overseas travel and slow growth in senior travellers can also lie in the background but few of them are actually examined in-depth,” he said.

Another report by Japan Tourism Marketing points to the “effects of the fluctuations in the financial and capital markets mainly caused by the sub-prime mortgage loan problem and developments of oil prices on the Japanese economy and overseas economies.”

According to a December 2007 JTM report, “the record high crude oil prices are becoming a serious social issue in Japan today,” especially the resulting higher fuel surcharge for international air tickets.

The surcharges were introduced in February 2005 and, reports JTM, were “raised substantially” again as of January. The new surcharges levied by Japan Airlines are up by 4,000 yen one-way to 17,000 yen for the US/Europe/Oceania routes and by 2,600 yen one-way to 12,500 yen for the Hawaii routes. This, says the report, “is affecting price-conscious FITs in particular, because they are likely to avoid expensive surcharge. The continued escalating fuel surcharge could be an obstacle to the Japanese government’s numerical goal to send 20 million Japanese abroad by 2010.”

The JTM report said that the ability to further probe this trend is being affected by the increasing use of the internet as a means of making direct bookings by Japanese travellers.

It said: “Most travel products are sold via travel companies. Companies can get hold of consumers’ travel preference and trends through direct contact with consumers, which they apply to product development and sales promotion.

“Recently, as the distribution of travel products shifts toward the Internet, travel trade has fewer opportunities for personal contact with consumers, which consequently means that customer behavior and psychology are less visible for travel companies now.

“A finding in a recent group interview of six consumers was shocking; all of the interviewees made overseas travel arrangements entirely without help of travel companies. Together with the fact that the number of Japanese travellers abroad is shrinking, the travel industry should be awakened.”

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.