As Japan cheers reopening, weak yen is both good and bad news for travel sector
- Travel bosses are delighted visitors are back, but some worry ‘budget’ visitors will flood Japan due to the weak yen, and at a time workers are ‘out of practice’
- Bookings rocketed after Tokyo said rules would end, with Australians, South Koreans being urged to visit and the PM urging everyone to spend
“We are delighted,” said Masaru Takayama, president of the Kyoto-based Spirit of Japan Travel. “The entire industry welcomes this development because it has been a very long and very hard three years for the sector.”
Takayama said his company had been “inundated” with requests for information from prospective travellers as well as bookings, including a good number of reservations that are being made “several months in advance”.
Kumiko Yamada, from Kagawa’s Tourism Promotion Division, echoed that optimism for operators and venues in Japan’s smallest prefecture.
“It is going to be really good to be able to have more foreign visitors back in Japan and to be able to welcome them once more. The last few years have been difficult, but we are confident that Kagawa has lots of things to do and see for foreign tourists,” she said.
“In some ways, the timing of the restrictions being lifted is fortunate because autumn is one of the very best times to be in Japan. And I would recommend that people visit the traditional Japanese Ritsurin Garden because it is beautiful at this time of year, as the tree leaves turn gold and red.”
Last week, Google said Japan was the most-searched travel destination by Australians, with the number of visitors from Down Under growing 324 per cent in the decade before the pandemic.
That is clearly a trend that is continuing now, with David Galt, the CEO of online travel agent Webjet OTA, telling Kyodo News that bookings by Australians for Japan had rocketed 322 per cent in the five days after September 23, the date Tokyo announced that travel restrictions would be scrapped on October 11.
In 2019, the year before the pandemic struck, Japan was the seventh most popular overseas destination for Australians, with more than half a million arrivals.
South Korea is also reporting a sharp spike in interest for holidays in Japan, with the country’s largest travel agency Hana Tour reporting a 1,031.8 per cent surge in bookings immediately after the announcement about travel restrictions ending, the Chosun newspaper reported.
He also vowed to increase the amount spent by foreign visitors, aiming to raise it to an ambitious 5 trillion yen (US$34.3 billion) a year.
Tourist spending came to 4.8 trillion yen in 2019 but collapsed to 120 billion yen last year.
Simon Robinson, president of resort property operator Hokkaido Tracks, in the ski resort of Niseko, said the feeling in a town that has traditionally relied heavily on foreign visitors enjoying its world-renowned powder skiing, is “excited nervousness”.
“We are seeing overwhelming interest for the upcoming season and that imminent influx is incredibly exciting and positive,” he said.
“All our traditional markets have already clicked back in and the interest is from everywhere – and I expect all flights between Hong Kong and Hokkaido to be fully booked.”
However, he admitted there are some concerns.
“This has all happened very suddenly and while we are very optimistic, we are also a little out of practice,” he said. “We want to deliver the very best experience that a visitor to Niseko can have because that is how we are going to build the industry back up, but we need to perform.”
Part of the problem is that people who were previously employed in tourism – including hotel and bar staff, ski instructors, restaurant employees and drivers, and many other professions – left to seek new opportunities when the travel downturn really bit, Robinson added.
In an indication of another potential problem, Takayama said there are already the first murmurings of concern in Kyoto that the city may well return to the pre-pandemic days of overtourism, when local residents began to resent the huge numbers of visitors clogging up public transport and not always adhering to Japanese etiquette on disposing of rubbish or keeping quiet in the evening.
“I think that overtourism could be a problem as the weak yen has made Japan a very affordable destination all of a sudden and I’m not sure that we should be appealing to the budget end, the mass-market of the travel spectrum if we want to have the right balance in our travel industry,” he said.