Visitors to Japan surge to record high in 2015, nearing 2020 target

Tourists watching Japanese snow monkeys enjoy the hot spring at the Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park in Yamanouchi town.
Tourists watching Japanese snow monkeys enjoy the hot spring at the Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park in Yamanouchi town.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - Japan had a record number of foreign visitors last year, thanks to a surge in Chinese arrivals, a cheaper yen and looser visa rules, it was announced on Tuesday (Jan 19).

Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has set a target of boosting the number of annual visitors to 20 million by 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics.

But already in 2015, 19.7 million people visited Japan, 47.1 per cent above the previous year, the Japan National Tourism Organisation said.

As the total number is likely to reach the government's goal before 2020, officials are considering revising it upward, said Mr Yoshihide Suga, the top government spokesman.

"We would like to decide whether to seek one of 30 million or above 30 million," he told a Parliament session on Tuesday.

The Japanese figures do not differentiate between tourists and other kinds of travellers.

By comparison, France drew 83.7 million tourists in 2014 and has a target of 100 million by 2020.

Among other moves, Tokyo has made it easier to obtain visas and expanded the coverage of goods that can be purchased duty-free.

A decline in the value of the yen has also helped. Another key factor is China, which sent a record 4.99 million visitors to Japan, more than double the previous year's figure.

China surpassed South Korea in the number of visits and became the largest source of visitors to Japan, the Japan National Tourism Organisation said in a statement.

It cited improved China-Japan relations, the weaker yen and an overall increase in the number of Chinese going abroad as their country's economy grows.

Visitors from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan were counted separately.

South Korean visitors surged 45 per cent to 4 million last year, despite sometimes frayed diplomatic relations.

The Japan Tourism Agency said total spending by foreign visitors reached a record 3.48 trillion yen (S$42.6 billion) last year.