By Daniel Leussink
TOKYO (Reuters) – The number of foreign visitors to Japan fell for the fourth month in January as the impact of a South Korean boycott weighed, with further, sharper falls expected as the coronavirus outbreak keeps away Chinese travellers.
The fall in number comes months before Japan is set to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, over July and August, and despite the headwinds, Japan said it was sticking to its target of 40 million foreign visitors this year.
“The environment is severe due to the new coronavirus, but this is having an impact on a global scale, not only for Japan,” said Hiroshi Tabata, commissioner of the Japan Tourism Agency.
Overall foreign visitors to Japan in January fell for the fourth month, data released on Wednesday showed, with sharper falls expected ahead as the impact of the coronavirus hits.
Foreign arrivals, including tourism and business travellers, in the month declined 1.1% to 2.66 million from 2.69 million in the same month last year, Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) data showed.
Arrivals from South Korea – which has been boycotting Japanese goods and services since a trade dispute erupted between the neighbours last year, plunged 59% year-on-year, the JNTO said.
The coronavirus outbreak has raised concern about Japan’s over-reliance on tourism, which, until now, was one of the few successes of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics” growth policies rolled out seven years ago.
In 2016, Abe doubled Japan’s target for foreign visitors to 40 million by 2020, as a weaker yen and easier visa regulations triggered a rush of tourists, especially from China.
But the coronavirus outbreak has led to a rash of cancellations of cruise ship calls at Japan’s two busiest cruise terminals, after China last month halted all outbound tour groups.
The total number of regular flights between China and Japan has fallen by 70% compared with before the virus outbreak, Tabata said, adding that the government would work together with the private sector to achieve its ambitious visitor target.
“(It’s) a trump card for regional revitalization and we’re recognising it as a pillar of the growth strategy of our country,” he said.
The number of mainland Chinese visitors rose 23% in January, compared with the same month last year, helped by the timing this year of the Lunar New Year holiday.
The holiday officially began this year on Jan. 25 – two days before China halted all tour groups to other countries due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Of the 31.9 million foreign visitors who came to Japan last year, more than 9.5 million were Chinese, the biggest source of arrivals and up 14.5% from the previous year.
(Reporting by Daniel Leussink; Editing by Sam Holmes, Robert Birsel)