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Domestic and international tourist crowds traveling in Japan

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I believed I managed to beat the tourist crowds on my recent trip to Japan.

On my first night in Osaka, I managed to get an image with the famed Glico sign without anyone else within the background.

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Days later, CNBC’s Abigail Ng saw multiple groups of individuals flocking to this spot to pose for pictures. — Courtesy of Chen Meihui

But perhaps I should’ve chalked it as much as the proven fact that it was a Monday night.

I wasn’t so lucky later that week: It was next to not possible to get an image at the highest of the forest in Kyoto’s Arashiyama Bamboo Grove — about an hour away from Osaka — without being photo-bombed.

And my journey to a Kyoto Buddhist temple, Kiyomizu-dera, was no different — I got off a packed bus only to come across a human traffic jam on the street resulting in my destination.

Visitors gather on a terrace near the Kiyomizu-dera to look at the sunset and autumn leaves in Kyoto, Japan.

Courtesy of Abigail Ng

On one other day, at Comcast’s Universal Studios Japan, there have been long queues for food stands selling seasonal or themed specials throughout the park. For one major roller coaster, The Flying Dinosaur, I waited around 70 minutes within the single-rider queue — which usually has shorter waiting times than the regular one.

Local and foreign tourists

My experience got here as no surprise to Wanping Aw, CEO of the Tokyo-based travel agency Tokudaw.

She said queues could also be longer due to staffing issues, and the crowds were likely a mixture of local and foreign tourists. The previous group is benefiting from discounts from the federal government, doled out to encourage local tourism.

“Due to the domestic campaign, everyone seems to be going to Mount Fuji or Hakone on the weekend,” resulting in traveling time almost doubling, she said.

“On Saturdays and Sundays … it feels as if all the Japan, just like the local Japanese people, are going to Disneyland, like there is a very big traffic jam on the expressway leading into Disneyland,” she added.

Wanping Aw said it could possibly take three to 4 hours to succeed in Mount Fuji from Tokyo on weekends due to traffic jams. The journey normally takes around two hours, she said.

David Mareuil | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

As for international visitors, many got here rushing back once authorities announced the resumption of visa exemptions and individual, independent travel.

At Ichiran, a ramen chain popular with foreign tourists, I waited 40 minutes for a seat despite arriving at around 11 a.m. Several would-be customers left after hearing the estimated waiting time.

Japan first reopened its borders in June, but only to tourists on chaperoned package tours, and visas were required. Within the months before those rules were lifted on Oct. 11, there have been fewer traffic jams and queues, said Aw.

“I feel my customers, they enjoyed Japan more,” she said.

“From June to possibly end-October, like everyone was very joyful,” Aw added.

How strong is demand?

In October, the month when nearly all restrictions were removed, Japan recorded 498,600 visitors — greater than double the 206,500 arrivals in September, in accordance with preliminary data from the Japan National Tourism Organization.

For the upcoming winter season, Club Med’s resorts in Hokkaido will probably be running at near full occupancy, in accordance with Rachael Harding, the corporate’s CEO of East, South Asia and Pacific markets.

Online bookings to Japan jumped by 79% inside every week after authorities announced the easing of measures, she told CNBC Travel in an email.

Tokudaw’s Aw said bookings along with her company remain strong for the year-end period, at around 85% of pre-Covid levels. She observed an “abrupt drop” in January bookings, followed by an uptick in April, when cherry blossoms bloom.

H.I.S. Travel, nonetheless, told CNBC Travel that its customers from Singapore have made bookings during to April.

When asked if demand softens in the brand new 12 months after the college holidays in Singapore end, Fritz Ho of H.I.S. said: “Actually, no. Actually, I’d say the inquiries [are] picking up.”

He said working adults and friend or family groups are also traveling across the Lunar Recent 12 months holiday in January 2023.

Singaporeans love Japanese food, and that is one in all the explanation why they’re returning to Japan, said Fritz Ho of H.I.S. International Travel.

Calvin Chan Wai Meng | Moment | Getty Images

Ho, the manager for meetings, incentive, conventions and exhibitions, estimated that demand has reached 75% to 80% of 2019’s levels.

He cited the weak Japanese yen as one reason for the recognition of the destination, adding that customers are staying for more days than before and are willing to spend more.

The dollar is around 20% stronger against the yen compared with the beginning of the 12 months.

Club Med’s Harding said the yen’s weakness makes Japan a “much more cost-effective holiday destination for the time being,” but that the country was popular even before the currency weakened.

“Japan has all the time been an especially popular destination whether or not it’s for its pristine ski conditions, architecture, art, traditions, food  or fascinating popular culture,” she said.

Each Ho and Aw also said Japan’s high hospitality standards were attractive to visitors.

China: the missing piece

To be clear, despite the recovery in tourism, October’s arrivals are still only a fraction of the greater than 2 million people per 30 days in 2019, before the Covid pandemic hit.

Chinese tourists, who still must quarantine after they return from overseas, remain the missing piece of the puzzle.

In October 2019, greater than 730,000 visitors from China made up nearly 30% of arrivals in Japan, national tourism data showed. That is a far cry from the 21,500 Chinese tourists who made up 4.3% of October 2022’s visitors.

Analysts largely expect China to reopen between the second and third quarter of 2023, and Club Med’s Harding said tourists from the country are “definitely necessary for the local [Japanese] tourism and economy.”

Tokudaw’s Aw said she thinks the massive surge in arrivals could cause the understaffed tourism sector to “collapse.”

That said, she told CNBC Travel that there have been Chinese-speaking staff on every level of a high-end hotel in Tokyo that she recently went to.

“Japan is actually serious about Chinese money,” she said.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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