Crowds of domestic and international tourists traveling around Japan | Tech US News

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I thought I managed to beat the tourist crowds on my recent trip to Japan.

On my first night in Osaka, I managed to take a picture with the famous Glico sign with no one else in the background.

Days later, CNBC’s Abigail Ng saw several groups of people flocking to this place to take photos. – Courtesy of Chen Meihui

But maybe I should have chalked it up to the fact that it was a Monday night.

I wasn’t so lucky later that week: it was almost impossible to get a photo at the top of the forest at Kyoto’s Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, an hour away from Osaka, without getting bombed.

And my trip to a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera, was no different: I got off a packed bus only to encounter a traffic jam on the street leading to my destination.

Visitors gather on a terrace near Kiyomizu-dera to watch the sunset and autumn leaves in Kyoto, Japan.

Courtesy of Abigail Ng

On another day, at from Comcast Universal Studios Japan, there were long lines for food stalls selling seasonal or themed specials throughout the park. For one major roller coaster, The Flying Dinosaur, I waited about 70 minutes in the single rider line, which usually has shorter than normal wait times.

Local and foreign tourists

My experience came as no surprise to Wanping Aw, CEO of Tokyo-based travel agency Tokudaw.

She said queues may be longer due to staffing issues and the crowds were likely to be a mix of local and foreign tourists. The first group is taking advantage of government discounts, distributed to encourage local tourism.

“Because of the domestic campaign, everyone goes to Mount Fuji or Hakone on the weekend,” making travel time nearly double, he said.

“On Saturdays and Sundays … it seems as if all of Japan, like the local Japanese, go to Disneyland, as if there is a huge traffic jam on the expressway leading to Disneyland,” he added.

Wanping Aw said it can take three to four hours to reach Mount Fuji from Tokyo on weekends because of traffic jams. The trip usually takes about two hours, he said.

David Mareuil | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

As for international visitors, many have rushed back once authorities announced the resumption of visa waivers and individual and independent travel.

At Ichiran, a ramen chain popular with foreign tourists, I waited 40 minutes to get a seat despite arriving around 11am. Several would-be customers left after learning the estimated wait time.

Japan reopened its borders for the first time in June, but only to tourists on guided tours with companions and visas were required. In the months before these rules were lifted on Oct. 11, there were fewer traffic jams and queues, Aw said.

“I think my customers enjoyed Japan the most,” he said.

“From June until maybe the end of October, like everyone was very happy,” added Aw.

How strong is the demand?

In October, the month when almost all restrictions were lifted, Japan recorded 498,600 visitors, more than double the 206,500 arrivals in September, according to preliminary data from the Japan National Tourism Organization.

For the upcoming winter season, Club Med resorts in Hokkaido will be operating near full occupancy, according to Rachael Harding, the company’s CEO of the East, South Asia and Pacific markets.

Online bookings for Japan surged 79% in a week after authorities announced the easing of measures, CNBC Travel told CNBC in an email.

Tokudaw’s Aw said bookings with his company remain strong for the year-end period, around 85% of pre-Covid levels. She noted a “sharp drop” in January bookings, followed by an increase in April, when the cherry blossoms bloom.

HIS Travel, however, told CNBC Travel that its Singapore customers have made reservations through April.

When asked if demand softens in the new year after the end of Singapore’s school holidays, HIS’s Fritz Ho said: “Indeed, no. In fact, I would say you look into it. [are] collecting.”

He said working adults and groups of friends or family also travel for the Lunar New Year holiday in January 2023.

Singaporeans love Japanese food, and that is one of the reasons why they return to Japan, said Fritz Ho of HIS International Travel.

Calvin Chan Wai Meng | Moment | Getty Images

Ho, the manager of meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions, estimated that demand reached between 75% and 80% of 2019 levels.

He cited the weak Japanese yen as one of the reasons for the destination’s popularity, adding that customers are staying longer than before and are willing to spend more.

The dollar is 20% stronger against the yen compared to the start of the year.

Club Med’s Harding said the yen’s weakness makes Japan a “much more affordable holiday destination at the moment”, but that the country was popular even before the currency weakened.

“Japan has always been an extremely popular destination whether for its pristine skiing conditions, architecture, art, traditions, cuisine or the fascinating folk culture,” he said.

Both Ho and Aw also said that Japan’s high standards of hospitality were attractive to visitors.

China: The Missing Piece

To be clear, despite the recovery in tourism, October arrivals are still only a fraction of the more than 2 million people per month in 2019, before the Covid pandemic hit.

Chinese tourists, who still have to quarantine when they return from abroad, remain the missing piece of the puzzle.

In October 2019, more than 730,000 visitors from China accounted for nearly 30% of Japan’s arrivals, according to national tourism data. This is a far cry from the 21,500 Chinese tourists who accounted for 4.3% of October 2022 visitors.

Analysts largely expect China to reopen between the second and third quarter of 2023, and Club Med’s Harding said the country’s tourists are “definitely important to the local population.” [Japanese] tourism and economy”.

Tokudaw’s Aw said he thinks the large increase in arrivals could lead to the “collapse” of the understaffed tourism sector.

That said, she told CNBC Travel that there were Chinese-speaking staff at every level of a high-end Tokyo hotel she recently went to.

“Japan is really serious about Chinese money,” he said.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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