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Surge in visitors to Japan attributed to S. Korean tourists

The Imperial Palace in Tokyo is a top destination for tourists visiting Japan. (Kyodo photo)

TOKYO - The surge of foreign visitors to Japan in the first half of this year to a record 13.76 million is primarily attributable to a rise in South Korean tourists, particularly those arriving on low-cost carriers.

"More young (South Korean) people are enjoying brief personal trips (to Japan) casually using LCCs (low-cost carriers)," said Shin Seo Kyung, deputy director of Korea Tourism Organisation's Tokyo office.

The weekly number of South Korean LCC flights arriving at and leaving Japanese airports this summer season is 483, more than quadruple the figure four years ago, according to Japan's Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry.

Key destinations for South Korean travelers are in the Kansai area in western Japan, apparently due to the proximity of Kansai International Airport where many LCC flights arrive and leave.

In the Kansai area they typically enjoy shopping in Osaka, a major commercial city, and visiting tourist attractions in Kyoto and Nara, ancient Japanese capitals.

South Korean tourists' appetite for Japanese food has also been high, partly due to a TV drama based on the Japanese gastronomy comic "Kodoku no Gurume" (Solitary Gourmet).

Yang Jong Im, a visitor from South Korea's Jeju Island who often travels to Japan, said, "I love crabs that can be eaten cheaper than in Korea. Japan is a food paradise."

A record 5.09 million South Koreans visited Japan last year, when total foreign visitors to Japan marked an all-time high of 24.04 million, up 21.8% from the previous year.

At that time, Chinese accounted for the largest portion at 6.37 million visitors, followed by South Koreans.

In the first half of this year, the number of foreign visitors soared 17.4% from a year earlier to a record 13.76 million, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.

During the six months, South Koreans accounted for the highest number of foreign tourists at 3.40 million, up 42.5%, followed by Chinese at 3.28 million, up 6.7%.

The increase in Chinese visitors has recently been smaller partly because they are turning to tours to Europe.

The number of South Korean visitors to Japan "will likely reach 7 million during the full year," Korea Tourism Organisation president Jung Chang Soo predicts.

Citing the Japanese government's target of attracting 40 million foreign visitors in 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Jung said in that year South Korean visitors to Japan would mark 10 million.

Japan and South Korea held a bilateral forum to promote tourism earlier this month on Jeju Island and agreed to increase flights between their local airports to attract tourists to the countryside.

In the meeting, Japan made a pitch for tours to sites of such famous Japanese animation films as "your name." and for experience-based tourist activities including stays in old Japanese houses.

"It is important to attract visitors not only to the capital area, Kansai area or other urban regions but tourist spots that have not been very familiar," a senior official of the Japan Tourism Agency said.

Some analysts have pointed to the possibility that South Korean tourists have been turning to Japan partly because of their country's soured relations with China over the United States' deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense missile system in South Korea.

Others said Japan should not depend too much on South Korea for tourism promotion that is part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's growth strategy.

South Korea's population is about 50 million, much smaller than China's 1.3 billion.

"It would be risky to depend on South Koreans who tend to stay for a short time and spend little," one analyst said.

The Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) has designated 20 countries and territories, including the US and those in Southeast Asia and Europe, from which Tokyo intends to attract visitors as a priority in the current fiscal year.

"We would like to make efforts to increase travelers who spend relatively a lot," JTA chief Akihiko Tamura said in a press conference in mid-July.

He expressed hope that more rich tourists from the US, Europe and Australia will visit Japan.


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