Japanese Slow to Resume Foreign Travel as Weak Yen Bites; April Marks 60 Yrs since Nationals Allowed to Sightsee Abroad

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People leaving Japan crowd the departure lobby of Haneda Airport on Monday.

April marks 60 years since Japanese people were officially allowed to make pleasure trips abroad. While the number of Japanese people traveling abroad had been steadily growing, the historically weak yen and strong dollar are making it difficult for many to take such trips.

This contrasts with a surge in travelers to Japan after the COVID-19 pandemic, and some municipalities are taking their own measures to help people go overseas.

A slow rebound

“The trip is expensive, but we have not had this kind of luxury in a while. So, we will enjoy being abroad,” said a smiling 42-year-old office worker at Haneda Airport in April, before she boarded her flight to Southeast Asia.

Narita Airport is expected to see 438,500 international departures during this year’s Golden Week period (from April 26 to May 6), according to Narita International Airport Corp. That is down 10% from 2018, when the combination of national holidays and weekends during the holiday period was similar to this year’s schedule.

“In the airport lobbies, you see a lot of foreign tourists going home. We think there’ll be some recovery in Japanese tourist numbers, but we don’t know by how much,” said Akihiko Tamura, the airport company’s president, at a press conference on Thursday.

In March, about 1.2 million Japanese nationals traveled abroad, or about 60% of the figure for March 2019, before the pandemic began. The slow recovery in Japanese travelers contrasts sharply with the record number of foreign visitors, which topped 3.08 million last month.

The cost of package trips abroad rose by 70% in the Consumer Price Index last month from March 2020. In 2019, one travel agency was selling six-day package tours to Hawaii for Golden Week for around ¥300,000, while the same package was going for around ¥500,000 this year. There is no denying the yen’s weakness.

‘10-million plan’

In 1964, traveling abroad was much more expensive than now. A nine-day and seven-night tour of Hawaii, for example, would have run about ¥364,000, or nearly 18 months’ starting salary for a university graduate at the time. Foreign travel grew more accessible thanks mainly to flights on jumbo jets and government support.

As Japan massed huge trade surpluses, serious trade frictions emerged. To address the problem, the government promoted foreign travel, which counts as a trade deficit in statistics. In 1987, the government announced its “10-million plan” and set a goal of doubling the number of people traveling abroad over the next five years. To reach its goal, Japan helped other countries attract Japanese tourists by funding their development of tourist spots, among other means.

In 1995, when the yen averaged about ¥94 to the dollar, the number of Japanese tourists traveling abroad reached 15 million. While over 20 million Japanese people traveled abroad before the pandemic, that was down by more than half in 2023, when the yen averaged about ¥140 per dollar.

Travel agencies are trying to push numbers back up, such as by showing the attractiveness of foreign travel on social media. But, “When it comes to a recovery in foreign travel, Japan is behind the rest of the world,” said an official at a foreign airline. “It’s not going to be easy to come back.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Support measures

Eighty-five percent of Japanese nationals traveling abroad use one of three airports: Narita, Kansai or Haneda. For regional airports, the decline in foreign trips could lead to fewer international flights. That is why the Saga prefectural government is providing ¥1,000 one-way to each member of a group of two or more using Saga Airport. For a group of four, the perk rises to ¥2,000. The Niigata prefectural government is set to start a similar subsidy program for young people shortly.

“Experiencing different values in other countries is a precious experience,” said Masahiro Isogai, professor of tourism design at Atomi University. “The central and local governments need to support such drastic measures as incorporating overseas learning programs into high school study.”