Japan's outlying regions beckoning Asian tourists (Feature)
By Takehiko Kambayashi Feb 24, 2011, 4:36 GMT
Dazaifu, Japan - One tour bus after another arrives in Dazaifu, an otherwise sleepy rural town, carrying South Korean visitors eager to see a majestic Japanese shrine.
The foreign tourists, who far outnumber domestic visitors, are lining up to see Tenmangu shrine on the southern island of Kyushu.
The shrine is 'beautiful and the town itself is very pretty,' said Baek Jun Won, a university student from Suncheon, South Korea.
South Korean tourists like him make up around 60 per cent of the total overseas visitors to Fukuoka Prefecture, said Masahiko Esaki, a local official.
Fukuoka is taking advantage of its vicinity to the Korean Peninsula and has a major airport, railway station and port, Esaki said.
Esaki expects a big rebound in tourism after the prefecture suffered a 32.9-per-cent plunge in visitors in 2009 due mainly to the fall in value of the South Korean won, the global recession and the outbreak of a new influenza virus.
Tourism revenue 'contributes a lot to the region's economy,' Esaki said. 'We want Asian power while the domestic economy shrinks.'
Asian tourists' shopping sprees at major department stores raise Japanese eyebrows and are often featured in television news programmes.
Outlying regions like Fukuoka were hit hard by protracted economic downturns as companies moved their factories abroad and young people left.
The provinces hope a growing number of tourists from Asia could help reinvigorate local economies.
The number of overseas tourists visiting Japan jumped 26.8 per cent to an all-time high of 8.6 million in 2010, the Japan National Tourist Organization (JINTO) said. It attributed the increase to the global economic recovery and the effectiveness of advertising campaigns.
Visitors from the top three markets - South Korea, China and Taiwan - make up 60 per cent of the total.
The JINTO 'places a high emphasis on markets in East Asia,' Takahiro Kimura, an official at the organization, said. A tourism campaign in the region led by the organization 'becomes larger year by year.'
When Junichiro Koizumi was prime minister, Japan decided to promote a 'tourism-oriented country,' launching the first annual campaign in 2005 to attract more overseas tourists.
Japan Tourism Agency was established in October 2008, at a time when the world started slipping into recession.
Japan enjoyed the rebound in 2010 with Chinese visitors increasing 40.5 per cent to 1.4 million, accounting for 16.4 per cent of the total. The government's relaxation of tourist visa rules for Chinese people contributed to the surge, officials said.
But strained ties with China prompted the numbers to plunge from 171,503 in August to 68,500 in November and 60,600 in December.
In early September, Japan arrested a Chinese captain after his fishing boat collided with Japan Coast Guard vessels near disputed islets in the East China Sea. That led to the worst bilateral diplomatic row in recent years.
Kimura said it would take time to bring Chinese tourists back to Japan.
The JINTO and about 50 major travel agencies in Beijing and Shanghai made concerted efforts to regain popularity by placing advertisements in newspapers in big cities and in fashion and travel magazines, Kimura said.
But the fall in the number of Chinese tourists was offset by a rise in other Asian visitors, said Yasuko Kitahara of Fujita Kanko, which operates hotels across the country.
They did not see much change in the number of visitors during the Chinese New Year, Kitahara said.
Jiro Tabata, a local government official in Hokkaido, Japan's northern island, also said the region was not affected by the soured ties.
He said the island expects to see more tourists from Asia.
Hokkaido has received more Chinese visitors in group tours in recent years while more individual tourists come from Taiwan and Hong Kong, Tabata said, adding the island's ski resorts such as Niseko attract Australian tourists.
'Taiwanese tourists seem to be interested in seeing snow since they don't have snow in their own country,' he said. 'While Chinese tourists in general like lavender flowers in Frano [located in the centre of the island], many visitors from Hong Kong get a rental car and enjoy driving around Hokkaido.'
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