The number of inbound tourists to Japan increased in 2022 for the first time in three years, with visitor numbers on a steady rise since the government eased border restrictions in June.
However, a full recovery of the tourism industry remains out of reach for now as Chinese visitors have been slow to return amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in China.
According to figures released Wednesday by the Japan National Tourism Organization, the number of international visitors to Japan climbed to an estimated 3.83 million in 2022, 15.5 times higher than the total in 2021, when the figure sunk to a record low.
The easing of border restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic fueled the rebound in tourist numbers, which plummeted to 245,862 in 2021.
In June, the government reopened the borders to foreign tourists on guided group tours. Visitor numbers gained momentum after the government lifted the ban on independent travelers in October.
South Korea accounted for the largest segment of foreign visitors in 2022, with about 1.01 million tourists, followed by 331,100 travelers from Taiwan, 323,500 from the United States, 284,100 from Vietnam and 269,300 from Hong Kong.
Visitors from China accounted for about 30% of overall travelers to Japan before the pandemic. However, only 189,000 Chinese tourists came to Japan in 2022, likely due to the impact of Beijing's strict zero-COVID strategy, which continued until the end of last year.
According to the Japan Department Stores Association, tax-free sales reached about 17.5 billion yen in November, about five times the level in the same month the previous year.
"If Chinese tourists also return to Japan, I'm sure our business performance will return to pre-pandemic levels," said Yoshio Murata, president of department store operator Takashimaya Co.
However, at the end of December, the Japanese government said inbound flights from mainland China would be limited to four airports - Narita, Haneda, Kansai and Chubu - because of surging COVID-19 cases in China.
The government also asked domestic and overseas airlines not to increase the number of flights from China to Japan.
A complete recovery in Chinese tourist numbers "will hinge on when these temporary border controls end," Japan Association of Travel Agents Chairperson Hiroyuki Takahashi said.
On Tuesday, the U.N. World Tourism Organization announced that more than 900 million tourists traveled internationally in 2022 - about 60% of the 1.46 billion tourists recorded in 2019 before the pandemic.
However, it appears the ramifications of Japan's prolonged and strict border controls are still being felt as inbound visitors to the country are only at around 10% of the 2019 level.
The government hopes visitor numbers will return to their 2019 level of 31.88 million by 2025, when the Osaka-Kansai Expo will be held.
The tourism industry includes a wide range of businesses, such as retailers, bars and restaurants.
The government will compile a three-year tourism promotion plan through fiscal 2025 by the end of this fiscal year, which ends in March.
At a meeting on Monday, members of an expert panel discussing the plan said it was crucial to focus not only on the number of visitors, but also on increasing the amount tourists spend during their stay.
The government wants to strengthen efforts to attract wealthy and big-spending tourists from Europe and the United States.
Ways to attract more tourists to regional areas will also likely feature in discussions.