New data shows that tourists are returning to Japan in numbers that are approaching pre-pandemic levels. However, Japan isn’t returning the favor. Despite holding one of the strongest passports in the world, many in Japan are opting for domestic travel instead. Here’s why.
The inbound tourism revival
Japan closed its doors near the start of the pandemic. That shut out not only tourists, but students, academics, businesspeople, and many others with plans to spend a year or more in the country.
The government lifted visa restrictions in October 2022. However, that didn’t lead to an immediate return in tourism. Tokyo’s major airports, Haneda and Narita, remained relative ghost towns for several months afterwards. And tourists were an increasing but still rare sight in the streets of major cities.
Fortunately, that appears to be changing. New numbers from the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) shows that the country received 1.8 million foreign visitors in March. That’s 63.8% of the numbers the country received in the same month in 2019 before the lockdown.
The data shows an interesting breakdown on who’s coming back to Japan. Americans are flocking back in even higher numbers than they did in 2019 – 115% of the 2019 totals. In terms of other Asian countries, Vietnamese and Singaporeans lead the way, with visitors from both countries exceeding 100% of 2019 rates.
The numbers represent a huge improvement over 2022 totals. In March 2022, a mere 66,121 visitors came to Japan. Last month’s numbers represent a 2,649% increase.
Japan remains a prime destination spot for many foreign travelers. Visitors cite the country’s rich history and architecture, beautiful scenic landscapes, and cuisine as reasons for wanting to visit.
The uptick in inbound tourism couldn’t come at a better time. Japan’s economy remains sluggish, with residents plagued by stagnant wages and rising costs. Restaurants and entertainment business suffered heavily during the pandemic, closing their doors at higher than normal rates. Japan’s old family businesses (老舗; shinise) suffered heavily as well, with some 1,045 businesses over 30 years old closing for good in 2022.
Why Japan’s not getting on a(n international) plane
JNTO’s data also revealed another interesting data point, though: the visiting isn’t reciprocal.
Domestically, in-country tourism is booming. The country’s massive Golden Week holiday starts next week. Travel agency JTB says that, based on survey data, it expects travel numbers to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Outbound international tourism, however, is lagging. According to JNTO, 694,300 people in Japan traveled internationally in March 2023. That’s an 882% increase over March 2022’s total of only 70,678. However, it’s well below 2019’s total of 1,929,915 outbound travelers. That’s only a 36% recovery.
Compare this to countries like the United States, where foreign travel is booming. In fact, the demand for new passports is so high that first-time applicants are facing four month delays in getting their “get out of America” cards. Officials say the US is experiencing “unprecedented” demand.
High prices and chicken/egg dilemmas
Japan has one of the strongest passports in the world that gives citizens access to 190 countries visa-free. So what’s keeping people at home?
According to a survey by the Japan Association of Travel Agents (JATA), the reason is simple: high costs. Bus, plane, and other travel expenses have risen along with everything else. And with many in Japan struggling with higher utility and food costs, there’s not much left to spend on overseas travel.
The weak yen is also another factor. The yen’s price relative to currencies such as the dollar makes coming to Japan a real bargain. But that also means that the yen doesn’t go as far abroad as it once used to.
Yet a third factor is the massive delay in re-opening the country’s borders. Airlines haven’t had the time to ramp up their operations. That means fewer outbound flights. It also means many airlines are short-staffed.
Industry experts are warning the travel industry could find itself in a classic “chicken/egg” dilemma. In other words, companies are waiting for travel to resume to beef up operations – but until they beef up operations, travel options remain limited. Japan’s travel agencies are worried, as domestic tourism only accounts for a fraction of their business.
As it is, people in Japan don’t take as much advantage of their powerful passport as other countries do. Only 15.3% of Japanese people traveled abroad in 2018, compared to 28.4% in the US and 52.1% in South Korea.
When surveyed, many in Japan say they stick with domestic travel because there are so many good options. It’s hard to argue with that. But it’s little wonder that travel agencies here are keen on changing that attitude – and improving their bottom line.
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