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Japan hit with steep decline in visitors from South Korea

TOKYO >> A worsening relationship between Japan and South Korea has had a negative impact on tourism.

Since summer, South Korean visitors to Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura in Hokkaido, a tourist spot popular for its ninja shows, have all but disappeared. In the past, they accounted for the majority of park admissions.

Of the 3.12 million foreigners who visited Hokkaido last year, about 23% were South Koreans.

Meanwhile, in the Jozankei Onsen hot spring area in Sapporo, less than 1,000 South Korean tourists visited in September; prior to the spring, they numbered10,000 each month.

The decline is likely to continue. According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, eight South Korean airlines — which through June operated some 1,200 flights a week to and from Japan — have reduced flights by about 30%.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, in the 12 months since September 2018, the number of South Korean visitors dropped overall by nearly 60%. Now, local governments are eyeing tourist markets outside South Korea.

The Hokkaido government has earmarked 30 million yen (about $275,000) to develop websites introducing Hokkaido tours to Chinese visitors, and encouraging airlines to launch new routes.

In Tottori Prefecture, where South Korean flights have been suspended since July, the government succeeded in establishing Shanghai flights that will begin in January.

Japan has been registering losses in South Korean visitors since the second half of 2018, attributing the decline to the weak won and a sluggish economy.

But there are long-held tensions between the countries, rooted in the controversy over Japan’s sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II. Those were exacerbated recently when Japan placed limits on its exports to South Korea, followed by South Korea ending intelligence-sharing with Japan.

For all the concern, however, South Korean tourists have less economic impact than other visitors. That’s partially due to the close proximity of the two countries, allowing for quick trips that can last just a few days.

In 2018, South Koreans spent an average of 78,000 yen (about $718) per person, a third of what Australians spent. The figure is the lowest among visitors from 20 countries and regions.

According to the Japan Research Institute, spectators of the recent Rugby World Cup — many of whom are affluent and had booked extended stays — are projected to have spent a total of 105.7 billion yen (more than $970 million).

The institute encourages drawing the same demographic of visitor to Japan. “It’s necessary to strengthen promotional activities aimed at European and American customers, whose consumption is high,” said Kazuki Kitatsuji, an institute researcher.

In Oita Prefecture, which includes the popular Beppu hot spring area, South Korean tourists have dipped more than 70%.

But a new type of South Korean visitor has started to surface, according to an association of Beppu hotels.

“The number of South Korean individuals who spend 20,000 to 30,000 yen (about $184 to $276) per night for a room is gradually increasing,” said a representative of the association.

“This is a good opportunity to think about a shift from quantity to quality, said Toru Azuma, a Rikkyo University tourism expert.

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