Jul 07, 2015

    China tourists' love for Japan holds lessons for both countries

    THE foodcourt at a popular market in Naha, Okinawa, was full of people speaking Mandarin, and some of the waitresses and waiters were speaking Mandarin too. For a moment, I had the distinct impression that I was back in China.

    When I left, a local taxi driver told me that Naha is planning to build a large statue of a dragon, a symbol of China, on a hill to greet the cruise ships that arrive carrying large numbers of Chinese tourists.

    Japan is the most popular destination for Chinese tourists, with 2.05 million Chinese nationals granted visas last year. Most Chinese visitors head to Japan for the shopping. Last year, spending by Chinese tourists was up 10.3 per cent year-on-year, amounting to almost US$2,000 (S$2,700) per person.

    Chinese tourists do not have to like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his policy towards China, but his economic policy, known as Abenomics, makes Japan an alluring destination.

    Along with the easing of visa requirements and a weak yen, Japan's expansion of its consumption tax exemption to food products and cosmetics last fall has attracted even more Chinese.

    There is no doubt that Japan's languishing economy is getting a boost from the large influx of Chinese travellers.

    As Japan's population ages and declines, the world's No. 3 economy is becoming increasingly dependent on consumer spending by those who live outside the country.

    And Tokyo knows it. Mr Abe wants to make tourism one of the main engines driving Japan's economic growth by opening more duty-free shops, and expediting immigration and Customs procedures.

    Last year, Chinese visitors spent US$164 billion abroad, making them the world's biggest vacation spenders.

    More Chinese tourists are expected to flock to Japan. China, Japan and South Korea held talks on April 12 to boost the three countries' tourism, aiming to increase the visitor numbers among them to up to 30 million in 2020, from about 20 million last year.

    Chinese travellers' shopping sprees in Japan should remind China's producers to work hard to produce quality goods, and remind Mr Abe that another downturn in relations would make some Chinese tourists rethink their holiday destination.