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Foreign tourists walk through Nakamise Street at Asakusa, in downtown Tokyo. Photo: EPA-EFE

Japan tourism expo returns with fewer visitors, but sector remains upbeat as travel curbs ease

  • The country’s reopening has buoyed optimism for exhibitors at the Tourism Expo Japan, including those from Hong Kong and China
  • But a weak yen and surging fuel surcharges on flights could continue to keep Japanese travellers home
Tourism Expo Japan 2022, Asia’s biggest travel show before Covid-19 decimated the industry, drew fewer visitors than in previous years but exhibitors remained upbeat as they sought to attract Japanese tourists to destinations including Hong Kong and mainland China.
The industry’s sense of optimism had improved significantly with Japan’s announcement that from October 11, it will do away with the 50,000 cap on daily overseas arrivals and resume visa-free travel.
Speaking at a press conference in New York on September 22, the first day of the four-day event, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan was bringing its border control measures in line with the rest of the Group of Seven nations. Kishida was in New York to address the UN General Assembly.
Tourism Expo Japan 2022, Asia’s biggest travel show before Covid-19 decimated the industry, saw fewer visitors than previous years’ editions but that failed to put a damper on exhibitors. Photo: Kyodo

That was music to the ears of Kazunori Hori, regional director of the Japan market for the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB), who said the number of people making inquiries at the expo’s HKTB booth was similar to the scale of interest in 2018.

“Queries from visitors were focused on the current entry requirements for Hong Kong, including the new ‘0+3’ arrangement, as well as new experiences and offerings for tourists,” he told This Week in Asia.
Under the “0+3” quarantine rule announced by the Hong Kong government in late September, new arrivals are no longer subject to compulsory quarantine.

“The new ‘0+3’ requirements allow greater convenience and flexibility for travellers and we expect to initially mainly attract business travellers and family visitors,” Hori said, adding that the bureau is planning a series of new initiatives to attract more Japanese visitors back to Hong Kong.

Travellers arrive at Hong Kong’s international airport after the compulsory quarantine is lifted. Photo: AFP

There are, however, challenges that have yet to be overcome, he admitted. He pointed to the still-low number of Japan-Hong Kong flights, which remains below pre-pandemic levels.

Surging fuel surcharges on flights and a weak yen also continue to limit the Japanese people’s intent to travel abroad, he added.

“But in the long run, we are confident that Hong Kong remains an attractive destination for Japanese visitors, as an exciting line-up of new infrastructures, world-class landmarks, attractions and major upgrades has been completed.”

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The expo was last held in Tokyo at the Tokyo Big Sight convention centre in 2018, with more than 200,000 attendees. The event moved to Osaka the following year as Tokyo Big Sight underwent renovation to become the media centre for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

In 2020, the expo was whittled to a one-day event in Okinawa as Covid-19 took hold. The expo was cancelled in 2021.

The organisers have declared the 2022 event – held under the banner of “Taking on a New Era – Restart!” – as a success for both inbound and outbound travel sectors, but the 122,000 expo visitors remain a far cry from 2018’s visitor numbers.

“Before the coronavirus, we took part in the expo every year because Japan is such an important market for us,” said Ouyang An, director of the Tokyo office of the China National Tourism Office.

Chinese tourists take a break after shopping in Tokyo’s posh Ginza district on April 11, 2010. China’s continued strict Covid-19 restrictions are unlikely to boost visitor arrivals in Japan any time soon. Photo: AP

Some 9.6 million mainland Chinese visited Japan in 2019, according to An. Arrivals neared 17 million when those from Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong were included.

Japan welcomed more than 31.9 million foreign tourists in 2019, underscoring the significance of the Chinese market.

The number of foreign tourists was expected to exceed 40 million in 2020 when Tokyo hosted the Olympics, and rise to 60 million arrivals by 2030. But the coronavirus pandemic dashed hopes of the 2020 target, even as the government insisted that the 2030 figure remains the nation’s ambition.

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Li Haruto, CEO of Tokyo-based SanA, said interest in the first two days of the show that were set aside for the travel industry and media, had been “so-so” but the last two days that were open to the public saw far more visitors.

“China and Japan have a long history of exchanges and we are very keen to share the culture of our region with visitors from Japan,” said Li, whose company promotes Zhejiang Province as a destination for Japanese tourists.

While he was positive about the long-term outlook, China’s strict Covid-19 restrictions in China mean it is unlikely that visitor numbers will recover any time soon.

But Li shrugged. “Travel is a difficult business.”