Japan’s Tourism Sector Counts on Chinese Holiday Rush; Over-Tourism Measures Being Prepared in Kyoto

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tourists arriving in Japan from China are seen at Kansai Airport on Friday morning.

Throngs of Chinese holidaymakers are coming to Japan as China’s week-long public holiday, which surrounds its National Day on Oct. 1, started on Friday. China lifted its ban on group tours to foreign countries, including Japan, for the first time in four years in August.

Business operators in Japan’s tourism industry depend highly on Chinese holidaymakers during this holiday period.

Flights to Kansai Airport almost full

The week-long public holiday is a time when many people typically go abroad, including to Japan, as they also do during the holiday season of Chinese New Year.

At Kansai Airport on Friday morning, Chinese passengers with suitcases in tow were seen after an airplane arrived from Shanghai.

A 21-year-old university student who is visiting Japan for the first time, together with a friend, said happily, “I like Japanese manga and okonomiyaki (a Japanese-style savory pancake), and I was looking forward to coming here.”

A 33-year-old male office worker, who is visiting Japan for the first time and is going to spend 10 days in Osaka and Tokyo with his wife said, “We are looking forward to eating Japanese food and going shopping. We would like to fully enjoy our first visit to Japan.”

In Minami, Osaka’s biggest entertainment district, Chinese families were seen taking pictures in front of the iconic Glico sign and other famous tourist attractions.

According to All Nippon Airways (ANA), flights departing from China from Thursday through Saturday are “almost fully booked.”

China Southern Airlines, which operates six routes between Kansai Airport and mainland China, has reportedly seen some of its flights 80-90% booked during the holiday.

Anticipating an increase in inbound tourist demand, businesses in the tourism sector in Japan are making moves to accommodate them.

In Higashimuki shopping street near Nara Park in Nara, a new drugstore opened on Thursday. Hotel Nikko Nara hired a Chinese-born employee this year. Recently, the number of guests from mainland China has been increasing, while reservations by group tourists have also picked up during the holidays.

Cancelled bookings

Japan’s border control measures have been eased markedly since last October. In May this year, COVID-19 was downgraded to Category V, the same level as the seasonal flu, under the Infectious Diseases Law. Consequently, the recovery in the number of foreign visitors to Japan is well underway.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, the number of visitors to Japan in August was estimated to be approximately 2.16 million, which is about 86% of the number posted in the same month in 2019.

This is the first time that the number of visitors exceeded 80% of pre-pandemic levels. Of these, approximately 360,000, or 17% of the total, were from China, which accounted for 30% of all visitors to Japan before the pandemic began.

Amid the spread of COVID-19, the Chinese government had imposed restrictions on overseas trips for travel purposes. But it ended its zero-COVID-19 policy in January this year, allowing individuals to travel overseas. On Aug. 10, it also lifted a ban on group tours to foreign destinations, including Japan, which is likely to increase the pace of recovery in the number of inbound tourists to Japan.

On the other hand, the Chinese government is opposing the release of treated water the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, and this has had some impact on inbound tourism.

After the first release of the treated water into the sea began, “Onyado Nono Nara,” a hotel in Nara, suffered a string of cancellations by groups of tourists.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The area near Nara Park crowded with holidaymakers, in this photo taken on Sept. 22 in Nara.

According to the company managing the hotel chain, a total of approximately 1,500 Chinese visitors stayed at the hotel during the National Day holiday season before the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, however, only about 400 guests, or 30% of pre-pandemic levels, are booked to stay at the hotel.

However, the Consulate-General of Japan in Shanghai said applications for tourist visas have been increasing gradually. Although there has been a series of cancellations among tourist groups, a large number of individual tourists are still expected to come, with the impact of the treated water release on tourism likely to be limited.

Measures to cope with over-tourism

In Kyoto, the municipal government is rushing to take measures in preparation for a possible recurrence of over-tourism.

Many foreign visitors use the city buses, causing problems for Kyoto residents going about their daily lives.

To deal with this problem, the city government was due to suspend sales of one-day bus tickets on Saturday, 90% of which were used by holidaymakers. Meanwhile, to encourage the use of the city’s subways in combination with its buses, the municipal government will expand the free transfer service from the city bus to the subway system.

In addition, the taxi association started a shared taxi service for the journey from Kyoto Station to Kinkakuji Temple at the end of September.

On top of these measures, the city government will encourage holidaymakers to “take in the sights [of Kyoto] hands-free,” as a measure to deal with the congestion aboard the city-run buses. This service would enable visitors to leave their suitcases and other large luggage at JR Kyoto Station and have them transported to their accommodation for about ¥1,000 per piece, thus allowing them to travel without luggage and avoiding congestion on the bus.

The city government says, “As the number of inbound tourists are expected to increase during the autumn foliage season from November to December, we would like to strengthen our countermeasures.”