An outbreak of pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus has dealt a serious blow to Japan’s tourism industry. As Chinese group tours have been banned, many large-scale trips to Japan have been canceled one after another.
For the Japanese tourism industry, the Chinese New Year holiday period that begins in late January is usually the busiest season when tourism-related businesses see large numbers of Chinese visiting Japan. However, at least 400,000 Chinese nationals will have canceled their trips to Japan by the end of March, according to industry sources.
In the central Japan prefecture of Shizuoka where over 90,000 people canceled their reservations for accommodation between January and March, many inn and hotel operators have expressed fears that the spread of the coronavirus will seriously affect their revenue. Tourism-related businesses in Yamanashi, also in central Japan, Nara, western Japan, and other prefectures where the ratios of Chinese people to all tourists staying at accommodation facilities are high have suffered a sharp decline in the number of visitors.
While a group infection of the coronavirus aboard a cruise ship at anchor off Yokohama, south of Tokyo, was confirmed, visits by cash-cow cruise ships to Kyushu in southwestern Japan and the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa have also been canceled, causing sales at commercial facilities in these areas to halve.
The number of visitors to Japan from overseas has been on the rise in recent years against the backdrop of the declining value of the yen and the easing of requirements for obtaining tourist visas, hitting a record high of 31.88 million in 2019. Chinese people account for the largest percentage — over 30% of that figure.
Chinese visitors spent a total of nearly 1.8 trillion yen on accommodation and souvenirs last year, serving as the driving force behind the Japanese government’s strategy for increasing inbound tourists as part of the “Abenomics” economic policy mix promoted by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The number of visitors from South Korea sharply decreased in 2019 because of diplomatic friction between Tokyo and Seoul over the issue of compensation for South Koreans who were forced to work in Japan during World War II. However, the decrease was offset by a sharp rise in the number of Chinese visitors.
Local governments have put efforts into the revitalization of regional areas by encouraging Chinese and other inbound tourists to visit their areas. However, concerns remain that the number of visitors from overseas tends to be affected by economic conditions abroad and outbreaks of infectious diseases.
Small and medium-sized businesses, which can face financial trouble if the number of visitors decreases, are playing a leading role in local tourism industries. Since such a risk has come to the surface, it is essential to extend assistance to these businesses to help them tide over the difficulties they face.
The central government is expected to work out emergency measures under which public financial institutions will extend assistance to cash-strapped tourism-related companies by the end of this week. To ease anxiety in regional areas, it is necessary to implement detailed measures to prevent infections and advise businesses on how to deal with their customers.
Concerns have also been raised about the possibility that many other foreigners will refrain from visiting Japan for fear of possible infections. The government should swiftly disseminate accurate information in foreign languages about those who have been infected with the coronavirus, quarantine procedures and treatment. The Abe government, which is striving to transform Japan into a tourism-oriented country, has a responsibility to implement effective countermeasures against the outbreak of pneumonia caused by the virus.