Japan Sees Record 2.73 Million Visitors in December in COVID Recovery Year

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Tourists from overseas pose for photo in Asakusa, Tokyo.

TOKYO (Reuters) — Japan welcomed a record number of visitors in December, official data showed on Wednesday, closing out a year of rapid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of foreign visitors for business and leisure rose to 2.73 million last month from 2.44 million in November, data from the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) showed.

It was the highest-ever number of tourists for the month of December and about 8% higher than the pre-pandemic level seen in 2019.

For the full-year 2023, a little more than 25 million visitors arrived in Japan, the agency said.

Tourism to Japan all but halted for more than two years during the pandemic as the country put up some of the world’s strictest border controls. But arrivals bounced back quickly after the government resumed visa-free travel for many countries in October 2022.

Arrivals exceeded 2 million every month since June last year, boosted by a weakening in the yen that makes Japan cheaper compared to other destinations.

Visitors this year are likely to break 2019’s record of 31.9 million, but tourist spending last year may have already reached the government’s goal of ¥5 trillion ($33.81 billion), said Teppei Kawanishi, general manager at travel industry consultancy Honichi Lab.

Average spending per visitor is about 30% higher than before the pandemic, driven in part by repeat travelers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia, Kawanishi said.

“Spending levels are very high nowadays,” he added.

December saw record arrivals for any single month among people from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia, the JNTO said.

That is helping to compensate for a slow recovery in visitors from mainland China, who made up nearly a third of all visitors and 40% of all tourist spending in Japan in 2019. The number of Chinese travelers in December was still 56% below pre-pandemic levels.

Inbound tourism has become a key part of Japan’s economic recovery, but a severe shortage of workers is hobbling the sector’s ability to keep up with demand.

“The industry cannot cope,” said Wanping Aw, managing director of boutique travel agency TokudAw that specializes in private car tours of Japan. “Experienced personnel are burnt out and overworked and have no time to train staff.”