Japan is eager to welcome overseas tourists amid a cheap yen

TOKYO (AP) — It’s hard to tell from his serious demeanor, but the CEO of Akky International Corp. Hideyuki Abe can barely contain his excitement.

Foreign tourists are back, those cash-strapped overseas visitors who used to flock to his colorful store in Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district, filled with watches and souvenirs like samurai swords and toy cats with heads.

Individual travelers will be able to visit Japan visa-free from Tuesday, just as in pre-Covid-19 times, and electronics stores, airlines and various tourist spots have high hopes for a revival of their businesses.

Japan has kept its borders closed to most foreign travelers during much of the pandemic. Only organized tours are allowed from June. Meanwhile, the yen has weakened sharply against the dollar, giving some visitors much more purchasing power and making Japan almost irresistible to bargain hunters.

Abe employs about 50 people and had resorted to layoffs after the pandemic hit in 2020. Some Akihabara stores have since closed, but it was too late.

“Power lies in staying,” Abe said. “Now, I’m a little worried about the lack of workers.”

Retailers in Akihabara and other businesses in Japan that rely heavily on visitors from around the world have had a tough couple of years. Major retail chain Laox has closed its store in Akihabara, keeping open only stores at Narita Airport and the ancient capital of Kyoto.

The city of Nara, famous for its temples, shrines and sake breweries, relies on returning tourists from other parts of Japan along with tourists from abroad. A pastoral getaway with deer roaming freely in the parks and glorious autumn foliage, it is a destination recommended for people worried about the risks of visiting crowded destinations, said Katsunori Tsuji of Nara Prefecture’s tourism promotion department.

“There are aspects of life that the Japanese have preserved over the years in Nara that you can really feel and enjoy, that spiritual element,” he said.

About 10 years ago, Chinese tourists, visiting in huge groups to snap up European luxury brands and even high-tech toilet seats, bought so much that their purchases were known as “baku-gai,” combining the Japanese words for ” explosive’ and ‘market’. .”

About 32 million foreign tourists visited Japan in 2019, before the pandemic. The travel and tourism sector then contributed more than 7% to Japan’s economy, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Japan’s major carriers All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines are increasing flights in response to expected higher demand. Both have sharply reduced flights during the pandemic.

“The impact that inbound visitors have on the Japanese economy is said to be around 5 trillion yen ($35 billion), so we have high hopes for what we can expect,” ANA CEO Shinichi Inoue told reporters recently.

The flights that will resume in the coming months include routes to and from places such as Honolulu, Frankfurt, New York, Seoul and Paris. They are intended to appeal not only to inbound tourists but also to Japanese people planning dream vacations during the Christmas and New Year holidays.

To serve shoppers from various countries, including places like Vietnam, Europe and America, the staff at Abe’s three stores speak more than a dozen languages ​​between them.

It has endured several crises, including the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, at a time when the yen was stronger against the dollar, making Japan an extremely expensive destination.

In 2011, the US dollar was worth around 80 yen. Last year, the dollar cost about 111 yen. Now, it is at a near three-decade high of around 145 yen as pandemic restrictions ease. Tourists will return.

“This time, it’s a perfect opportunity,” Abe said.


Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/yurikageyama

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