Japan, South Korea try to keep up with China's travel tastes

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in a good mood on the evening of Jan. 19. Sipping red wine at his official residence, he told his dinner guests the news of the day: Tourist arrivals to Japan had surged 47 per cent in 2015 to a record 19.7 million. Driving the growth was a 107 per cent jump in Chinese arrivals.

"We've got to expand hotel capacity to bring in more visitors," Abe said. "There's such a shortage of rooms that even APA hotels are expensive," he said, referring to a nationwide chain of no-frills business hotels.

Inbound tourism to Japan has been a shining star in the otherwise unspectacular Abenomics show. Last year's 5 million Chinese visitors spent some 1.41 trillion yen (US$12 billion) in the country, according to the Japan National Tourism Organisation, as a weaker yen and broader duty-free exemptions opened wallets wide. Half of Chinese visitors' spending went to shopping.


Japanese department stores and other retailers are crossing their fingers that the jump in Chinese arrivals and spending will continue through the Lunar New Year holiday season this month despite the weakening yuan and slowing Chinese economy. Indeed, an official with China Travel Service said holiday bookings to Japan were up 10-20 per cent from last year's holiday.

But while shopping remains high on the list of many Chinese travelers, the word from recent Japan-bound tourists is that "experiences," not baubles, are what they are after. Overseas-bound holiday travelers this year budgeted only around 3,000 yuan (US$456) each for shopping, according to travel agent CYTS Tours Guangdong Railway.

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