I think I beat the tourist crowds on my recent trip to Japan.
On my first night in Osaka, I captured a photo with the famous Glico sign with no one else in the background.
A few days later, Abigail Ng of CNBC saw groups of people flocking to the site to take pictures.
Courtesy of Chen Meihui
But maybe I should highlight the fact that it was a Monday night.
I wasn’t so lucky that weekend: It was nearly impossible to get a picture at the top of the forest in Kyoto. Arashiyama Bamboo Forest – about an hour from Osaka – without being bombarded with photos.
And my journey to a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera, was no different — I got off a packed bus only to find myself stuck in traffic on the road leading to my destination.
Visitors gather on a terrace near Kiyomizu-dera to watch the sunset and autumn leaves in Kyoto, Japan.
Courtesy of Abigail Ng
On another day, at Comcast’s Universal Studios Japan, there were long lines waiting for special seasonal or themed food stalls throughout the park. For one large roller coaster, The Flying Dinosaur, I waited about 70 minutes in a single-rider queue — often shorter wait times than in regular queues.
My experience comes as no surprise to Wanping Aw, CEO of Tokudaw travel agency based in Tokyo.
She said the queue could be longer because of staffing issues and the crowd can be a mix of domestic and foreign tourists. The old group is taking advantage of discount from the government, reduce to encourage local tourism.
“Because of the domestic campaign, people are going to either Mt. Fuji or Hakone on weekends,” resulting in an almost doubling of travel time, she said.
“On Saturdays and Sundays… it feels like the whole of Japan, like local Japanese people, is going to Disneyland, like there’s a huge traffic jam on the highway leading into Disneyland.” She added.
Wanping Aw said it can take 3-4 hours to reach Mount Fuji from Tokyo on weekends because of traffic jams. She said the trip usually takes about two hours.
David Mareuil | Anadolu agent | beautiful pictures
As for international visitors, many have returned massively after the authorities announced the resumption of visa-free travel and independent, individual travel.
At Ichiran, a ramen chain popular with foreign visitors, I waited 40 minutes for a seat despite arriving around 11am. Some leads left after learning the estimated wait time.
Japan reopened its borders for the first time in June, but only for tourists on package tours with an accompanying person and a visa is required. Aw said in the months before those rules were lifted on October 11, traffic congestion and queuing were less.
“I think my customers, they prefer Japan,” she said.
“From June to maybe the end of October, everyone seems to be very happy,” added Aw.
In October, the month in which nearly all restrictions were lifted, Japan recorded 498,600 arrivals – more than double the 206,500 arrivals in September, according to statistics. Preliminary data from Japan National Tourism Organization.
According to Rachael Harding, the company’s CEO for East, South Asia and Pacific markets, during the upcoming winter, Club Med resorts in Hokkaido will be operating at near full capacity.
Online bookings to Japan jumped 79% within a week after authorities announced the easing of the measures, she told CNBC Travel in an email.
Tokudaw’s Aw said bookings with her company remained strong during the year-end period, at about 85% of pre-Covid levels. She observed a “sudden drop” in bookings in January, followed by an increase in April, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom.
However, HIS Travel told CNBC Travel that its customers from Singapore have booked until the end of April.
When asked if demand will drop in the new year after the school holidays in Singapore end, HIS’s Fritz Ho said: “Actually not. In fact, I would say the requirements. [are] to pick up.”
He said working adults and groups of friends or family are also traveling for the Lunar New Year in January 2023.
Fritz Ho of HIS International Travel said that Singaporeans love Japanese food and that is one of the reasons they come back to Japan.
Calvin Chan Wai Meng | Moment | beautiful pictures
Ho, who manages meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions, estimates that demand has reached 75% to 80% of 2019 levels.
He quoted weakly Japanese yen is one reason for the destination’s popularity, adding that customers stay more days than before and are willing to spend more.
The dollar is about 20% stronger against the yen since the start of the year.
Club Med’s Harding said the weakness of the yen makes Japan a “much more affordable holiday destination right now”, but the country was already popular even before the currency weakened. .
“Japan has always been a hugely popular destination whether it be its pristine skiing conditions, architecture, art, traditions, cuisine or fascinating pop culture,” she said.
Both Ho and Aw also said Japan’s high standards of hospitality drew visitors.
Obviously, despite the recovery of tourism, the number of visitors coming in October is still only a fraction of the more than 2 million people per month in 2019, before the Covid pandemic hit.
Chinese tourists, who still need to be quarantined upon returning from overseas, are still the missing piece.
In October 2019, more than 730,000 visitors from China accounted for nearly 30% of arrivals to Japan, national tourism data shows. This is a far cry from the 21,500 Chinese visitors, which accounted for 4.3% of total visitors in October 2022.
Analysts largely expect China to reopen between the second and third quarters of 2023, and Club Med’s Harding said tourists from the country are “certainly important to locals”. [Japanese] tourism and economy”.
Tokudaw’s Aw said she thinks the spike in arrivals could cause the understaffed tourism industry to “collapse”.
That said, she told CNBC Travel that there are Chinese-speaking staff on every floor of an upscale Tokyo hotel she recently visited.
“Japan is really serious about Chinese money,” she said.
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.