A yen for Japan
As its currency slides amid a government drive to reflate the economy, Japan has never been a more affordable destination for Hongkongers
Macqueena Fan has been to Japan 15 times. She is a huge fan of the cuisine and every time she goes, she makes sure she indulges in local delicacies like sashimi and Sendai gyutan, a type of grilled ox-tongue. But her most recent trip over Easter was extra sweet. With the yen down 26 per cent against the Hong Kong dollar in the past five months, she found her money going much further than usual.
"I didn't really go to shop, but even from just eating out, I could tell I definitely used fewer Hong Kong dollars," says Fan.
Fan is one of many Hongkongers who are taking advantage of a weak yen to visit Japan. It is no Thailand - Tokyo still features at the top of many "world's most expensive cities" lists - but policies implemented this year by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, dubbed "Abenomics", have sent the yen into a tailspin, giving tourists a big discount in the country relative to their home currencies.
Travellers have noticed. The number of visitors to Japan rose by one-third in February compared to last year, making the month the busiest ever in terms of tourist traffic, according to the Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO).
Hongkongers are a big part of the surge. JNTO director Yoshihisa Ogawa says the number of Hongkongers visiting Japan doubled in February compared with last year. Traveller numbers from Taiwan rose 74 per cent in the same period. The only decrease has been among mainland Chinese visitors, largely because of an anti-Japan backlash related to the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku chain).
Michelle Kwok is one Hongkonger on holiday in Osaka to make the most of the situation.
"My friend has been telling me to go for over a year, but I didn't until now," she says. "Everything in Japan is usually expensive. If the yen was stronger, I wouldn't have been able to go, but everything fell into place - it's cherry blossom season, the yen is weak, I have friends here and the flight was cheap."
Susanna Lau, a marketing and product development manager at Hong Kong travel agency Travel Expert, says the company saw a surge of about 15 per cent in the number of Hongkongers visiting Japan during Easter compared to last year. Interest peaked around November, coinciding with the devaluation of the yen.
Lau says Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea are typically the top three destinations for Hongkongers. But with tension hanging over the Korean peninsula, travellers are turning to Japan, also just a short flight away.
"There has been an extremely healthy response from our [Hong Kong] customers. The numbers are so great that after Lunar New Year this year, we have allocated more resources to packages for Japan to cater to our customers … Customers have specifically mentioned to us that they want to take this opportunity to visit while the yen is weak," says Lau.
The company offers a three-day, two-night Tokyo package flying Air China for HK$1,990, while a three-day package to Okinawa is HK$1,690.
Yoshihisa Yamada, a vice-chairman of Rakuten Travel, the largest travel website in Japan, says it has also seen strong growth.
"Overall, mid-last year our inbound travel was growing at a rate of 20 to 30 per cent. But from about October to now the growth rate has shot up to 60 to 70 per cent. It's hard to break [down] the exact causes, but the depreciated yen does seem to have [had] a positive effect."
Yamada says the sticker prices of goods and services have remained the same in yen.
"I don't think that businesses have raised prices," he says.
That means that any traveller calculating costs in Hong Kong dollars will see an effective 26 per cent discount on goods in Japan compared to last November. And that is a boon for any Hongkonger going to Japan to shop.
Yamada also says Japan's government is vigorously promoting travel to the country.
"I think people now recognise that tourism is a big economic driver," he says.
"The administration has this big plan to up the total number of travellers to 15 million this year," he says, referring to the Visit Japan project, implemented to help stimulate tourism after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
"It's been two years since the tsunami, so it's taken a while to recover from that. With the weakened yen, I think they're trying to refocus on promoting inbound travel through attractive travel promotions."
Those included buy-three-get-one-free travel packages offered through to December last year.
Other new promotions are likely to focus on Tokyo and the Kansai region, with about 10,000 stores, hotels, and restaurants offering discounts.