How the World's Fastest Growing Travel Destination Is Becoming the Next Overtourism Battleground

Photo by nicholashan/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

by Oliver Smith, The Telegraph, May 29, 2018

In 1995, a modest 3.3 million people visited Japan, a fascinating land of ancient temples, neon skyscrapers, snow-capped mountains and sandy beaches. That year it was the 34th most visited country on the planet, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), behind the likes of Bulgaria, Ukraine and Belgium.

Growth was steady, if unspectacular, for the next decade or two. In 1998, 4.1 million overseas travellers spent at least one night on Japanese soil, making it the 33rd most visited nation. In 2005, 6.7 million went, moving it to 32nd on the list. It rose one more place, to 31st, in 2010, when foreign arrivals totalled 8.6 million.

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The country took a hit after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, and in 2012, visits fell to 8.4 million. Since 2013, however, something remarkable has happened.

At a glance | The rise of Japan

Annual arrivals have soared by more than 20 million, making Japan - by some distance - the decade’s fastest growing major destination. The UNWTO estimates that 28.7 million overseas travellers stayed in Japan in 2017, a rise of 334 per cent since 2010. It is suddenly the 12th most visited country on the planet.  

It is by no means the only nation to have seen rapid growth in recent years. Worldwide tourism is booming, driven by the increasing affordability of flights and the rise of China’s globetrotting middle class. But Japan’s surge easily outstrips its rivals. Overseas arrivals to Thailand, for example, one of its closest rivals in terms of growth, have risen by just 223 per cent since 2010.

High risers | Fastest growing major travel destinations since 2010 

What went right?

Japan’s rise demonstrates the value of cutting red tape. In 2013 the country relaxed visa restrictions for visitors from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. Since 2015 it has been slowly easing restrictions for Chinese citizens. In 2017 it became easier for Azerbaijani travellers to visit and this year those from India and Ukraine were the latest to benefit. A total of 66 nationalities can now visit Japan as a tourist without a visa.

The countries making it easier for Britons to visit in 2018

The rise of the Chinese tourists has also fuelled Japan’s boom. In the first year of the new millennium, a modest 10.5m overseas trips were made by Chinese residents. Fast forward to 2017 and the figure was 145m – an astounding increase of 1,380 per cent. In less than two decades China has grown from travel minnows to the world’s most powerful outbound market, leapfrogging the US – and leaving it in its wake. According to the UNWTO, Chinese tourists overseas spent $261.1bn in 2016, up from around $10bn in the year 2000 (the figure for 2017 is likely to top $300bn). Collectively, America’s globetrotters parted with a relatively paltry $123.6bn.  

1,380 per cent | How the number of Chinese tourists has skyrocketed Money matters | International tourism expenditure by country

In 2014 China overtook South Korea as Japan’s biggest source market and now provides more than six million annual visitors. For comparison, just over one million travel to Japan from the US each year.

The falling value of the Japanese yen has been another factor.

One US dollar bought around ¥80, on average, in 2012. That rose to ¥98 in 2013, ¥112 in 2014, and more than ¥120 in 2015. It currently stands at around ¥110, still way up on the start of the decade. Sterling goes further too, with one pound currently worth about ¥147 - up from ¥129 in 2012.

Hungary's out, Macao's in – how the travel map has changed since 1990 

What is going wrong?

Unchecked tourism is good for the economy - but it causes problems. Rapid growth means strained infrastructure and overcrowding in big cities and at major attractions. During recent months there has been tension rise between locals and visitors in destinations including Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, Madrid and Mallorca, and “overtourism” has become something of a buzzword.  

A timeline of overtourism - key events

And these problems have affected Japan too. Earlier this month The Japan Times reported on what the country’s media calls “kankō kōgai,” or “tourism pollution”. Kyoto is the key battleground, it says, with residents claiming the city is so overrun they can’t use local buses or get a reservation in their favourite restaurants. The city’s “miyabi”, a refined atmosphere unique to Kyoto, has been destroyed, they say.

How will these problems be addressed alongside the country’s aim to raise overseas arrivals to more than 40 million by 2020? The Japanese government will, from next year, charge overseas visitors a ¥1,000 exit tax and use the funds to boost tourist infrastructure. More welcome, perhaps, are suggestions to market more sustainable trips and lesser-known corners of the country, away from Tokyo, Kyoto and Mount Fuji.


This article was written by Oliver Smith from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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