JAPANESE are travelling overseas in greater numbers as a result of the soaring yen. Almost 14 million went abroad last year with Hong Kong being the third most popular destination after the United States and South Korea. A recent survey found that, for the Japanese, shopping was more important than sightseeing and twice as important as rest and recreation. The previous boom in overseas travel was 10 years ago, when the yen climbed to 168 against the US dollar. The current surge has been sparked by the yen's relentless climb to as much as 80 against the US dollar. Statistics show that one in 10 Japanese travelled abroad in the past year. Overseas travel is especially popular among the 20-40 age group. Only 20 per cent of Japanese travelled on business. 'The number one factor for the travel boom is the sharp appreciation of the yen against the dollar,' said Makoto Fujimoto, managing director of Japan Travel Bureau World Vacations. 'The second is reduced airline fares made possible by the introduction of a bulk fare system. Rates are down for overseas tours.' When foreign travel was first liberalised in Japan in 1964, only 128,000 overseas journeys were recorded. Mr Fujimoto said: 'A typical package was a nine-day tour to Hawaii, costing JPY364,000 (HK$47,800). Since the starting salary for university graduates was only JPY20,000, the trip was expensive beyond imagination. Today, you can take a similar trip for a price equivalent to a starting monthly salary.' By 1972, more than one million had travelled overseas and the number doubled the following year. In 1985, more young female office workers began to travel and this trend inspired jingles such as San-nin yoreba, Pari, Kon, Hawaii (When three get together, it's Paris, Hong Kong and Hawaii) and Norashigoto, bentobako wa Ruibiton (even farmers' lunch boxes are Louis Vuitton). Mr Fujimoto said: 'That was when Asia came into the spotlight as a destination for female tourists. Facilities in Bali, Cebu, Phuket, Penang and other beach resorts were improved, setting off a revolutionary chain in Asian tours, which, until then, had targeted mainly male tourists. 'Another characteristic of that boom was that Japanese tourists began to designate not only the hotel of their choice but also the rooms they wished to stay in - rooms commanding a sea view, for instance. 'Travel to Oceania also increased sharply, spurred by Australia's bicentennial. Tours to the Gold Coast and Melbourne, which included a chance to cuddle a koala, became popular.' By 1987, the Japanese Government had begun to use tourism as an economic tool. To reduce Japan's huge trade surplus, a goal of 10 million was set. It was achieved by 1990, a year ahead of schedule. 'Foreign travel became assimilated into everyday Japanese life,' Mr Fujimoto said. 'It ceased being a once-in-a-lifetime affair. People now travel with their spouses, families and friends. 'They choose their own time, place and objectives. In this sense, we can say the Japanese have become quite adept at travelling. 'But what stands out this year is many people travelling with their families. You also see more people travelling in groups. Many overseas tours are now cheaper than domestic tours.' Older people were spending more time at destinations to soak up the atmosphere slowly, he said. Younger people were seeking tours which left them plenty of free time. 'About 30 years after the liberalisation of foreign travel, the Japanese have graduated from the stage where they travelled according to schedules set by tourist agencies to a stage where they travel in their own chosen way. 'For those going to Hong Kong, we offer plans that let them make their own selections, ranging from meals and sightseeing spots to hotels, planes and the number of days they wish to stay. 'In a sense, this is an ideal place to discover the latest travel trends among Japanese tourists.'