JIN-491 -- Currency chills start to hit tourism industry

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J@pan Inc Newsletter
The 'JIN' J@pan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends
in Japan.
Issue No. 491 Wednesday November 19, 2008, Tokyo

As the winter sets in and thoughts turn to either staying inside
(onsen) or going outside (skiing), tourism operators in Japan must be
looking at the strength of the yen with dismay. Some of them anyway, a
recent survey was widely reported, stating that 70 percent of Japanese
inn operators weren't interested in having foreign tourists. This was
probably due to the fact that most did well enough from domestic trade
or simply were uninterested in learning another language rather than
any more xenophobic reasons, as some commentators said. But for
Japanese operators geared towards foreign tourists, such as those in
Tokyo and Hokkaido, the yen is looking increasingly scary.

According to reports the number of foreign tourists in September was
already down 7 percent compared to the same time last year. Not since
avian flu hit Asia, has Japan seen such a large percentage drop. A
report carried in the Hokkaido Shimbun and quoted in the Japan Times
said that most of the drop came from a loss of visitors from Korea and
Taiwan. Bookings at Niseko in Hokkaido are also down as the Australian
dollar continues to flounder. This morning it was worth about 62 yen.
Remember that a few months back it was up past 100yen. Australian
surfers are probably looking at breaks off Indonesia for their
holidays now instead of swapping their surfboards for snowboards and
heading to Hokkaido.

On October 1, the Japanese Tourism Agency (JTA) was created to boost
the number of foreign visitors to Japan. The agency, which set the
ambitious goal of attracting 10 million visitors a year and 4.3
trillion yen by 2010, has got off to a rocky start. Considering that
last year 8 million people visited Japan spending 1.6 trillion yen,
the agency has a lot of work ahead of it.

US tourists will also be looking elsewhere with currencies around the
world plunging against the dollar. Today the dollar was worth 96 yen.
Most analysts agree that the yen will remain strong or even strengthen
while some are predicting the dollar will take a substantial dive down
the track. So Europe and other cheaper destinations will be looking
more and more attractive for those Americans who didn't lose their
houses in the subprime mess or the resulting disaster on Wall Street.

But Asia is the real market for Japanese tourism. Increasingly the
streets of Ginza have been crowded with cashed-up Chinese from the
mainland keen to buy everything in their path. It has been reported
that Chinese are bigger spenders than Japanese when it comes to the
luxury goods that fill Ginza's flagship stores. As long as the yuan,
struggles against the yen, Chinese tourists will be looking to more
affordable locations in Asia or possibly Australia or Europe.

A recent Japan Times report mentioned that other factors than simply
the strength of the yen will also impact on tourism here. The JTA has
so far been promoting tourism ambassadors such as Hello Kitty but a
fundamental flaw in coordination between operators in Japan means that
the nation remains behind other Asian nations who have spent decades
honing their industries. For a nation that struggles in its grasp of
English, this can make travel for the average tourist more difficult
than other destinations. While the challenge of navigating a country
using foreign phrases can in itself be attractive to the more intrepid
tourist, your average mum and dad and two kids from Wisconsin may be
turned off by this.

Of course the strong yen will have an exponentially larger impact on
the economy via industries such as manufacturing, but let's remember
that there will be a lot of tourism operators out there feeling the
pinch this winter too.

Michael Condon

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