How Japan is sucking the air out of its neighbors in tourism

September 17, 2015 12:19
Chinese tourists walk outside a discount electronics store at Tokyo. The average Chinese spends 84,755 yen (US$703) on cameras, watches and VCDs. Photo: Reuters

Mainlanders are rushing to buy Japanese high-tech toilets which provide hot air, hot water, a sweet smell and even melodious music.

Japan is the biggest beneficiary of the slowdown in mainland visitors to Hong Kong.

They are flying there in record numbers and spending record amounts.

Chinese despise the foreign policy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but love "Abenomics", especially his devaluation of the yen, which has lost more than 30 per cent of its value against the renminbi since September 2013.

For the tourist industry, the devaluation has been a runaway success.

According to latest figures from the Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO), 9.14 million foreigners visited the country in the first half of 2015, an increase of 46 per cent over the same period in 2014.

In June 2015, 462,300 mainlanders came, up 167 per cent, and in the 10 days of the Spring Festival holiday this year, 450,000 Chinese spent nearly 6 billion yuan (US$942.32 million), JNTO said.

It said that the average Chinese spends 84,755 yen (US$703) on cameras, watches and VCDs; 57,474 yen on clothing, bags and shoes; 53,479 yen on electrical equipment; 34,683 yen on cosmetics and perfume; and 27,510 yen on medicines and health and sanitary products.

The most popular items include rice cookers, eye lotion, thermal cups, the high-tech toilets and even rice – one man spent 1,500 yuan to buy five kilograms of it to take home.

Nearly all of these products could have been bought in Hong Kong.

“This year, my parents and sister have all gone to Japan,” said Chen Xie-ming, a Shanghainese resident of Hong Kong whose family live in Shanghai.

“It is a short flight by air. The country is clean and the service excellent.

“Chinese look for products that are ‘made in Japan’. The quality is better than goods manufactured in the mainland. A Japanese rice cooker will last five years, against two for a domestic one. People are more confident in the quality of pharmaceuticals there than in the mainland,” he said.

“They want Japanese products made in Japan and not in China.”

According to the website of TOTO, the country’s leading manufacturer of toilets, it has sold 33 million Washlet models since they were first produced in the 1980s.

“They have warm water spray for intimate cleansing, heated seat, dryer and odor-absorbing deodorizer,” it said.

The latest model, launched in 2013, has two new features -- actilight and ewater+ technology that wash away dirt and bacteria in the bowl.

Japan also offers a wide range of hotel rooms, cuisine, natural scenery and cultural attractions.

In 2014, Japan was the most popular non-Chinese destination for mainlanders, with 2.05 million visitors, up from 980,000 in 2013.

Their total spending rose 10.3 per cent from 2013, an average of nearly US$2,000 per person.

As a result, Japan recorded its first travel account surplus in 55 years, reaching 209.9 billion yen, according to the Ministry of Finance.

This means that visitors spent more in Japan than its nationals spent abroad.

The Abe government has targeted tourism as an engine of the economy as its own population ages and implemented policies to attract Chinese.

In October 2014, it widened the scope of duty-free goods to food products and cosmetics.

From January this year, it began to issue three-year multiple-entry tourist visas to Chinese and abolished a requirement that the applicant had a certain level of income; the visa can be extended to five years. Retailers have hired Mandarin-speaking personnel.

It has been a dramatic turnaround.

In 2013, Japan ranked only 10th among the countries chosen by Chinese.

In 2014 and the first half of 2015, it ranked first, ahead of the US, New Zealand, Australia and Thailand.

In Naha, capital of the Japanese island of Okinawa, they are building a large statue of a dragon to place on a hill overlooking the harbor to greet the cruise ships that arrive from China.

Malaysia has fallen in the rankings because of ill will that arose from the Malaysian Airlines 370 plane bound for Beijing that was lost over the Indian Ocean in March 2014. Of 227 passengers, 152 were Chinese.

This year, South Korea, which offers similar shopping opportunities to Japan, has been badly affected by the MERS outbreak between May and July.

There were 186 people infected, of whom 36 died.

All this makes dismal reading for the hotel-owners and retailers of Hong Kong.

They offer almost the same range of products as the shops in Japan.

How can they lure back the missing mainlanders?

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.