Domestic and international tourist crowds traveling in Japan

I thought I managed to beat the crowds of tourists during my recent trip to Japan.

On my first night in Osaka, I was able to take a photo with the famous Glico sign with no strangers in the background.

A few days later, CNBC correspondent Abigail Ng saw several groups of people flock to the place to take pictures.

Contributed by Chen Meihui

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

Later that week, I was unlucky: it was almost impossible to take a picture in the upper forest of the Arashiyama bamboo grove in Kyoto—about an hour from Osaka—without photobombs.

And my journey to Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, was no different — I got off a crowded bus and ran into traffic on the street leading to my destination.

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

Contributed by Abigail Ng

On another day, in Comcast Universal Studios Japan, there were long queues throughout the park for food stalls selling seasonal or themed dishes. On one major Flying Dinosaur roller coaster, I waited about 70 minutes in a single-rider queue, which usually has a shorter wait time than normal.

Local and foreign tourists

My experience came as no surprise to Wanping Au, CEO Tokyo travel agency Tokudaw..

She said the queues could be longer due to staffing issues and the crowd was likely made up of local and international tourists. The former group enjoys government discounts given to encourage local tourism.

“Because of the internal campaign, everyone is going to Mt. Fuji or Hakone for the weekend,” she said that travel time has nearly doubled.

“On Saturdays and Sundays…it feels like all of Japan, as well as local Japanese, are going to Disneyland, as if there is a very big traffic jam on the expressway leading to Disneyland,” she added.

Wanping Au said that on weekends, due to traffic, Mount Fuji can be reached from Tokyo in three to four hours. According to her, the journey usually takes about two hours.

David Marey | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

As for foreign visitors, many returned in a hurry as soon as the authorities announced the resumption of visa-free travel and individual, independent travel.

At Ichiran, a fast food chain popular with foreign tourists, I waited 40 minutes for a seat despite arriving around 11:00 am. Several potential customers left after learning the estimated wait time.

Japan reopened its borders for the first time in June, but only for escorted package tourists and a visa was required. Av said there were fewer traffic jams and queues in the months before the rules were lifted on October 11.

“I think my clients liked Japan more,” she said.

“From June to the end of October, everyone was very happy,” Av added.

How strong is the demand?

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

Club Med’s resorts in Hokkaido will be almost full for the upcoming winter season, according to Rachel Harding, general manager of East, South Asia and the Pacific markets.

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

Av Tokudau said orders at her company remain strong at the end of the year, at around 85% of pre-COVID levels. She saw a “dramatic drop” in bookings in January, followed by a spike in April when the cherry blossoms.

HIS Travel, however, told CNBC Travel that its Singaporean customers were booking until April.

Asked if demand will slow down in the new year after school holidays in Singapore are over, HIS’s Fritz Ho replied: “Actually, no. In fact, I would say that requests [are] pick.”

He said working adults and groups of friends or families are also traveling for the Lunar New Year in January 2023.

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

Calvin Chan Wai Meng | Moment | Getty Images

Ho, manager of meetings, promotions, congresses and exhibitions, estimated that demand has reached 75-80% of 2019 levels.

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

The dollar is about 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 the country was popular even before the currency weakened.

“Japan has always been a hugely popular destination, whether it’s pristine skiing, architecture, art, tradition, food, or captivating pop culture,” she said.

Both Ho and Au also said that Japan’s high standards of hospitality attract visitors.

China: the missing piece

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

Chinese tourists who still need to quarantine upon their return from overseas remain the missing piece of the puzzle.

Over 730,000 visitors from China accounted for nearly 30% of arrivals in Japan in October 2019, according to national tourism data. This is a far cry from the 21,500 Chinese tourists who made up 4.3% of visitors in October 2022.

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

Tokudaw’s Au said she believes the huge surge in arrivals could lead to a “collapse” of the understaffed tourism sector.

However, she told CNBC Travel that every level of the upscale Tokyo hotel she recently visited had Chinese-speaking staff.

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

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

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