Forget the electrical appliances, tourists are buying agricultural products in Japan

Shoppers look at premium grapes at a fruit shop in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. PHOTO: THE JAPAN TIMES/ANN
Shoppers look at premium grapes at a fruit shop in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. PHOTO: THE JAPAN TIMES/ANN

(THE JAPAN TIMES/ANN) - With the electrical appliance shopping sprees by foreign tourists calming down, an increasing number of such tourists are buying Japanese agricultural products such as fruits and vegetables for souvenirs. Various efforts are under way both in the public and private sectors to take advantage of their popularity as souvenirs in order to export more agricultural products.

At the Sun Fruits shop in Nihonbashi Mitsu-koshi department store in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, many premium fruits such as muskmelons and shine muscat, a kind of speciality grape, are stocked on the shelves. According to the fruit shop, recently, there has been a change in the type of customers who have been visiting the shop.

“Foreign tourists are buying (high-grade fruits). In particular, more South-east Asian visitors are buying them as souvenirs,” a deputy manager of the store said. One tourist after another buys fruits that cost thousands of yen and takes them back home, according to the store.

Takeda Castle ruins, the national historical site known as the “castle in the sky” in Asago, Hyogo Prefecture, has become a new sightseeing spot for many foreign tourists. Tajima no Mahoroba, a roadside rest area near the castle ruins, set up a duty-free counter in October 2015. Since then, local speciality strawberries have flown off the shelves.

The facility introduced a humanoid robot that can provide tourist information in English, Chinese, Korean and French to enhance services for foreign tourists. Now, about 150 foreign tourists mainly from Hong Kong and Singapore visit the facility every month and look at the agricultural products for sale.

Foreign tourists also send agricultural products they purchase to the airport before their departure. In cases where plant quarantine is required, delivery companies carry out the necessary procedures on their behalf. Foreign tourists then receive the agricultural products at the airport and take them back home.

Such a system is a project commissioned by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, which has been joined by 16 facilities across the nation, including Michi no Eki roadside rest areas and farms open to tourists.

"We want more people from around the world to learn about the Tajima region through our food products,” said Yasumasa Fukumaru, a 45-year-old staff  member in charge at Tajima no Mahoroba.

A souvenir shop at Narita Airport Terminal 2 in Chiba Prefecture sold Japanese fruits on a trial basis this summer. A tourist from Hong Kong bought a melon in a box priced at 3,500 yen (S$41.90), including tax.

“If I buy it at a department store in Hong Kong, it will cost at least 8,000 yen. I was able to buy a good souvenir for my family,” he said as he headed for the boarding gate.

At the Chubu Centrair International Airport in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, a corner with fresh agricultural products was set up in a duty-free shop in May last year. For tourists who cannot take back fresh agricultural products due to plant quarantine rules, fruit is sold in cups to eat at the airport or on the plane.

The government has set a goal of increasing exports of agricultural, forestry and fisheries products to 1 trillion yen by 2019. According to an estimate by the ministry, the total amount of food such as agricultural products, confectionery and beverages purchased by foreign tourists for souvenirs and other purposes amounted to 289.7 billion yen in 2016.

When it comes to agricultural products as souvenirs, they need to undergo plant quarantine at airports and other places, depending on the destination, in order to contain diseases and pests. But some quarantine offices have been located at the end of airport buildings, which has caused inconvenience.

To remedy this, since fiscal 2015, the ministry has started to set up permanent quarantine counters in departure lobbies. It has so far opened such counters at five airports including Narita Airport and New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido.

“Taking advantage of the boom, we would like to increase the number of people who are enthusiastic about Japanese agricultural products and have it lead to more exports of those products,” an official at the ministry said.