Hoping to beat the tourist crowd on your trip to Japan? That ship has sailed

I thought I managed to beat the tourist hordes on my recent trip to Japan.

On my first night in Osaka, I managed to take a picture with the famous Glico sign without anyone else in the background.

A few days later, CNBC’s Abigail Ng saw several groups of people coming to the location to pose for photos. Courtesy of Chen Meihui

But maybe I should have chalked it up to the fact that it was a Monday night.

I wasn’t so lucky later that week: it was nearly impossible to get a picture at the top of Kyoto’s forest Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – About an hour away from Osaka – without getting photo-bombed.

And my trip to Kiyomizu-dera, a Kyoto Buddhist temple, was no different – ​​I got off a packed bus and encountered a human traffic jam on the road leading to my destination.

Tourists gather on a terrace near Kiyomizu-dera to watch the sunset and fall leaves in Kyoto, Japan.

Courtesy of Abigail Ng

on the second day Comcast’s Universal Studios Japan, there were long queues for food stands selling seasonal or themed specials throughout the park. For The Flying Dinosaur, a major roller coaster, I waited about 70 minutes in the single-rider queue—which usually has shorter wait times than regulars.

local and foreign tourists

My experience came as no surprise to Wanping Ave, CEO of Tokyo-based travel agency Tokudo,

He said queues could be long due to staffing issues, and the crowds were likely to be a mix of local and foreign tourists. Ex group taking advantage To promote local tourism, exemption has been given by the government.

“Because of the domestic campaign, everyone is going to Mount Fuji or Hakone on the weekend,” leading to travel times almost doubling, she said.

“On Saturday and Sunday … it’s like the whole of Japan, like the local Japanese people, is going to Disneyland, like there’s a huge traffic jam on the expressway going to Disneyland,” she said.

Wanping Aw said it could take three to four hours to reach Mount Fuji from Tokyo on weekends due to traffic jams. The journey usually takes about two hours, she said.

David Mareuil | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

For international visitors, many turned back after authorities announced visa waivers and the resumption of individual, independent travel.

At Ichiran, a ramen chain popular among foreign tourists, I waited 40 minutes for a seat despite arriving around 11 a.m. Many customers left after hearing the estimated wait time.

Japan reopened its borders for the first time in June, But only for tourists on dependent package tours, and visas were required. There were fewer traffic jams and queues in the months before those rules were lifted on October 11, O said.

“I think my customers, they enjoyed Japan more,” she said.

“From June until probably end-October, like everybody was very happy,” O said.

How strong is demand?

In October, the month in which almost all restrictions were lifted, Japan recorded 498,600 visitors – more than double the 206,500 arrivals in September, according to Preliminary data from the Japan National Tourism Organization.

For the upcoming winter season, Club Med’s resorts in Hokkaido will run at near full occupancy, according to Rachel Harding, the company’s CEO for East, South Asia and Pacific markets.

Online bookings for Japan increased by 79% within a week after authorities announced the easing of measures, she told CNBC Travel in an email.

Tokudaw’s Aw said bookings with his company remain strong for the year-end period, at around 85% of pre-Covid levels. She saw a “sudden drop” in January bookings, followed by a spurt in April, when the cherry blossoms bloom.

However, HIS Travel told CNBC Travel that its customers in Singapore have made all bookings since April.

Asked whether demand will soften in the new year after the end of the school holidays in Singapore, HIS’s Fritz Ho said: “Not really. No. In fact, I would say the inquiry [are] Raise.”

He said working adults and friends or family groups are also traveling around the Lunar New Year holiday in January 2023.

Singaporeans love Japanese food, and it’s one of the reasons they keep returning to Japan, said Fritz Ho of HIS International Travel.

Calvin Chan Wai Meng | moments | Getty Images

Ho, the manager of meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions, estimated that demand has reached 75% to 80% of 2019 levels.

he cited the weak Japanese yen as one reason for the popularity of the destination, adding that customers are staying longer than before and are willing to spend more.

The dollar is about 20% stronger against the yen than at the beginning of the year.

Club Med’s Harding said the yen’s weakness makes Japan “the more affordable holiday destination at the moment”, but the country was popular even before the currency weakened.

“Japan has always been a hugely popular destination whether it be for its pristine ski conditions, architecture, art, traditions, food or engaging pop culture.”

Both Ho and Aw also said that Japan’s high hospitality standards were attractive to visitors.

China: The Missing Piece

To be clear, despite the recovery in tourism, October arrivals are still a fraction of the more than 2 million people per month in 2019 before the Covid pandemic hit.

Chinese tourists, who are still required to quarantine upon return from abroad, remain the missing piece of the puzzle.

In October 2019, more than 730,000 visitors from China made up about 30% of arrivals in Japan, national tourism data showed. This is a far cry from the 21,500 Chinese tourists who made up 4.3% of October 2022’s visitors.

Analysts broadly expect China to reopen between the second and third quarters of 2023, and Club Med’s Harding said the country’s tourists are “certainly important to the locals.” [Japanese] Tourism and the Economy”.

Tokudaw’s Aw said he thinks the understaffed tourism sector could “collapse” because of the huge jump in arrivals.

That said, she told CNBC Travel that there were Chinese-speaking staff on every level of a high-end hotel in Tokyo she recently visited.

“Japan is really serious about Chinese money,” she said.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.