Japanese Overseas Travel Shows Slow Recovery in Wake of Coronavirus Pandemic

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People wait in line at check-in counters at Haneda Airport in Tokyo earlier this month

The number of Japanese nationals traveling overseas has failed to make a full recovery following a sharp drop due to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to estimates by major travel agency JTB Corp. last week, the number of Japan’s outbound travelers during the year-end and New Year’s holiday period between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3 is expected to remain at about 70% of the figure in fiscal 2019, prior to the pandemic.

Tourism organizations in various countries are stepping up efforts to get Japanese tourists to travel to their countries.

Passport holders declining

Many foreign tourists were seen on Dec. 4 at check-in counters for international flights at Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

“The airport is only crowded early in the morning and late at night, when many foreign tourists come here for flights to return home,” said an airport official.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, the number of outbound Japanese travelers between January and October this year was 7.64 million, up 3.9-fold from the same period last year. However, the number is down 54.3% compared with the figure in the same period in 2019, showing a sharp contrast to the rapidly recovering number of inbound travelers to Japan.

According to JTB projections, the number of outbound Japanese travelers during the year-end and New Year’s holidays is expected to reach 580,000, 2.6 times the number in the previous fiscal year. However, it is down 30% compared with the figure in fiscal 2019. The amount of travel expenses per person is ¥222,000, down 7.9% from the previous fiscal year.

The slow recovery of Japan’s overseas travel is mainly attributed to the weak yen. While the yen traded around ¥110 against the dollar in 2019, the currency’s value has dropped nearly ¥40, meaning shopping and dining overseas costs more for Japanese travelers.

“Depending on travel destinations, expenses cost twice more than the pre-pandemic levels,” said JTB President Eijiro Yamakita. This apparently is a factor hindering demand for outbound tourism.

In addition, the percentage of passport holders is declining. According to data by the Foreign Ministry and others, the percentage of passport holders among Japanese nationals had been hovering around 25% before the coronavirus pandemic. However, the figure dropped to 17% in 2022, meaning there are fewer opportunities for group travel such as for school trips. In addition, some of those whose passports expired during the pandemic are believed to have decided not to obtain new passports.

Declining number of travelers to U.S.

A recovery in the number of Japanese travelers is important to other countries.

The United States has many popular tourism destinations, such as Hawaii. Data on the number of overseas travelers to the United States by country in 2019 showed that Japan was the fourth-largest group at about 3.75 million visitors, following Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

In 2022, however, Japan ranked 13th with only 600,000 visitors, below India at about 1.25 million and South Korea at about 920,000. The number of Japanese visitors to the United States was 1.21 million between January and October this year.

Japanese travelers to the United States tend to stay rather long, meaning they spend a lot during their stays. This is prompting the U.S. tourism industry to “re-develop” the Japanese market.

At the end of November, the Japanese and U.S. governments signed an agreement to accelerate mutual exchanges between the two countries.

Aaron Wodin-Schwartz of Brand USA, a U.S. tourism organization, said he believes many Japanese people wish to visit the United States, which has common pop culture points, such as baseball. He said he believes the number of Japanese visitors to the United States will recover to the pre-pandemic level by 2026. The organization plans to promote campaigns starting from next year.

Popular travel destinations in Asia

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Data compiled by major travel agency H.I.S. Co. shows that popular travel destinations during the year-end and New Year’s holidays are mostly dominated by Asian countries where travel expenses look rather reasonable, such as Seoul and Taipei, and Cairns in Australia, where a low-cost carrier offers flights from Japan. On the other hand, Honolulu, which used to be ranked at the top in pre-pandemic years, was ranked third.

“An increasing number people apparently wish to limit their travel expenses,” said an H.I.S. official.

Asian countries and Australia are planning to step up efforts to attract more Japanese travelers.

In September, Cairns’ travel bureau held a campaign on social media offering return flight tickets and other prizes by lottery. Vietnam Airlines is offering a discount service to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Japan-Vietnam diplomatic relations.

“Every country is desperate for a recovery in the number of Japanese tourists. Competition is fierce,” said an official of the ASEAN Promotion Centre on Trade, Investment and Tourism, which is promoting travel information on Southeast Asian countries in Japan.