Imbalance of travelers to Japan

I have been doing some research on the travel patterns for foreigners in Japan that I would like to share with you. This data is all publicly available on JNTO’s excellent website, but I have assembled it a slide format to tell a story. The original inspiration for this work is to develop a core hypothesis for a travel network that I am developing to help address the exact problem of traveler imbalance that the data exposes so well.

The Proof is in the Data

The data really confirms some of my original thoughts, and the reasons for starting this blog in the first place. In summary, most visitors to Japan, especially Westerners, don’t take the time to see many of the really interesting parts of Japan. Similarly, everybody goes to the same places and makes a visit to Japan seem over-crowded with tourists, when the truth is that Japan is full of under-explored destinations as I have been trying to point out.

Japan Domestic Travel is Stagnant

In this first chart, you can see that just after the bubble era, there was a huge spike in domestic travel spending as Japanese chose to stay home rather than travel abroad. After peaking around 1998, domestic spending started a steady fall. While it has slowly picked up in the last few years, it appears that it would take decades to return to the peak.

International Arrivals are Growing Dramatically

Right around 2011, inbound travel to Japan started to grow at a dramatic rate. While there were many reasons like a weaker yen, the high rate of growth even took the Japanese government by surprise. Over the last 7 years, it has been growing at a 28% annual rate – one of the highest in the world. In Japan’s slow-growth economy, I doubt that there is any sector of business than can show such enormous growth.

However, the growth is being driven largely by Asian Travelers

Behind this rapid growth is another imbalance story. Asian visitors have increased at a rate almost triple that of other visitors, with the most dramatic growth coming from China and Korea, which is interesting in itself given the constant state of friction in the political relations that these two countries have with Japan. While just about every other major tourist destination in the world has seen a rapid influx of Chinese visitors, in Japan it is particularly striking.

Inbound Tourism is Concentrated in the Larger Cities

The second interesting imbalance trend is how close foreign visitors stay to the four largest prefectures. The result can be seen by crowds at the major tourist spots in cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, while the prefectures that were traditionally the major destinations of Japanese visitors, such as Nagano, Gifu and Shizuoka have not been replaced with equal numbers of foreign visitors.

Westerners Stick to the Big Cities

The final insight in the data showing imbalance is that despite the fact that the more remote regions are not getting their fair share of visitors, Asian travelers are doing a much better job at getting out and seeing the rest of what Japan has to offer. If you look at Europeans and North Americans, 45% of their hotel stays are in Tokyo alone. I also did some closer analysis of the smaller prefectures such as Iwate where the largest share of visitors are from Taiwan.

Empty parking lot at Kinzan silver mine, Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture

Where this imbalance was so obvious when last year when I visited the Kinzan silver mine on Sado Island in Niigata prefecture. Niigata is way down the list in terms of foreign visitors, but has a tremendous amount of amazing sites to offer. For anybody interested in industrial history, it really is quite amazing and one of the best presented exhibits of its type that I have seen anywhere in the world. When I went there in November of last year, while it was an off-peak season, I was literally the only visitor there during the four hours that I was there. During the two days that I was on Sado island, I saw perhaps two other tourists that were from Taiwan and Hong Kong. You can read more about my trip to Sado here:

The Kinzan silver mine is now on a tentative list to become a UNESCO World Heritage site so perhaps it might get the interest it deserves, but for now, it remains a hidden gem.

In my travels around Japan, these data just confirms what I have already observed – foreigners, particularly Western visitors, are really missing out on the many amazing experiences that Japan has to offer. I do
particularly enjoy having these places almost all to myself, but can’t help but think what a huge economic benefits these areas are missing, especially considering other economic opportunities are dwindling in these areas and younger people moving away.


3 thoughts on “Imbalance of travelers to Japan”

  1. Thanks fro this wonderful insight. Have you ever thought of reasons why western travelers stick to the cities rather than in suburbs and rural Japan? Do you think it has to do with English language accessibility, or does it have something to do with the Japan Railway Pass being “too convenient”? (Every one sticking to the Shinkansen stops.

    1. izupenrob-san: Thank you for your comment! I do think it has a lot to do with language gap and the perception that Japan is a difficult place to get around. I think Asian travelers are more bold in the sense that with being able to read kanji makes it a lot easier since at least they can easily remember place names. Part of my reason for this blog is to get more input from other people as my core hypothesis is that the problem is indeed the language/culture gap. I’m looking to develop an service to help promote the rural areas.

      1. Hi kakuekifan, thanks for your comment back! Yes, it’ll be great to inform people on how to get the best experience in Japan, without necessarily a travel guide…
        When you have time please visit my rural experience house called “The Other House Japan”. Thanks!

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