Japan’s December triumph: 2.73 million visitors illuminate COVID-19 recovery year

In a triumphant close to the year, Japan welcomed a record 2.73 million visitors in December, signalling a robust recovery from the challenges posed by COVID-19 throughout the year.

According to official data released on Wednesday, January 17, Japan saw a record number of tourists in December, capping off a year in which the country recovered quickly from the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to data from the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), the number of foreign visitors for business and pleasure increased to 2.73 million last month from 2.44 million in November.

With an astounding 8% increase, December’s tourism boom not only broke records for the month but also triumphantly surpassed pre-pandemic levels in 2019. This rebound represents a determined comeback from the two years of pandemic-induced inertia that beset the country. Since June 2023, arrivals have exceeded 2 million per month, indicating Japan’s commitment to revitalizing its tourism industry. This rapid recovery follows the resumed visa-free travel in October 2022.

Following the pandemic, inbound travel has become a crucial part of Japan’s economic recovery. The industry, which was previously hindered by strict border controls, is now a source of hope and has made a substantial contribution to the country’s economic recovery. Arrivals surged past 2 million per month despite a difficult period, partly due to Japan’s competitive pricing in comparison to other destinations and a favourable exchange rate.

There is more to the economic impact than just the volume of visitors. Analysts predict that by 2023, tourism spending may have surpassed ¥5 trillion (US$33.81 billion), the government’s ambitious target. This increase in expenditure represents a huge boost to the Japanese economy and is partly due to the declining value of the yen and high average spending per visitor.

According to Teppei Kawanishi, General Manager of travel industry consultancy Honichi Lab, average visitor spending has increased by about 30% from pre-pandemic levels. The fact that this increase is being driven by returning visitors from important Asian markets like Taiwan and Hong Kong shows how popular Japan has always been as a travel destination.

As Japan rejoices over its tourism achievements, a deeper look reveals complex patterns and market forces influencing the recovery. Interestingly, December saw historically high numbers of arrivals from Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, suggesting a renewed interest worldwide. Nonetheless, there are obstacles due to the sluggish rebound in tourists from mainland China, which was a major driver of Japan’s tourism in 2019. The fact that there were 56% fewer Chinese tourists in December than there were before the pandemic highlights the intricate nature of international travel dynamics.

The tourism industry in Japan faces both opportunities and challenges as a result of this dichotomy in visitor origins. In a world where things are always changing, the strong recovery in arrivals from certain regions makes up for the slower recovery in others. This emphasizes the necessity of adaptive strategies.

Unquestionably, Japan’s tourism industry has a positive economic impact, and it is expected to surpass the record 31.9 million visitors set in 2019. But there are still issues ahead, including a severe labour shortage that makes it difficult for the sector to meet the rapidly increasing demand. The managing director of the upscale travel company TokudAw, which specializes in private vehicle tours of Japan, Wanping Aw, provides insight into the pressures facing the sector.

“The industry cannot cope,” Aw says, highlighting the overwork and burnout that seasoned employees endure because they don’t have enough time to train new hires. One major obstacle to maintaining the momentum of Japan’s tourism recovery is the shortage of human resources.

The story of Japan’s tourism is starting to take shape, and online sentiment and digital diplomacy are playing a bigger part. For instance, after Nauru switched to diplomatic relations, the online community in Taiwan voiced dissatisfaction on the government’s Facebook page, highlighting the connection between online interactions and geopolitical developments. The Nauruan government’s reaction, which emphasized constructive criticism and imposed comment restrictions, is indicative of the increasing impact of public opinion on diplomatic narratives.

In the context of tourism in Japan, public perception management becomes essential. Both sides must exercise caution when navigating the digital terrain, as seen by the responses to trade tensions, investigations, and countermeasures that have been posted online.

China and the EU both understand the value of cooperation in areas of shared interest, notwithstanding trade tensions. With both parties expressing a willingness to cooperate, climate change emerges as a focal point for cooperation. Premier Li’s remarks regarding the pursuit of more balanced development in bilateral trade are consistent with the European Union’s focus on rebalancing trade and minimizing economic dependency.

In the face of trade tensions, the cooperative approach to climate change offers some hope, indicating that China and the EU both understand the importance of working together to address global issues. Additionally, it shows a practical approach to finding common ground despite ongoing geopolitical tensions.

The tourism industry is at a critical crossroads as Japan negotiates the complexities of its tourism revival. The successes of December and the more general trends of 2023 highlight how resilient Japan’s tourism industry is. But even as the country welcomes the flood of tourists, concerns about labour shortages, geopolitical dynamics, and changing online narratives must be carefully considered.