Historical feud leads to fall in South Korean visitors to Japan

Published on : Wednesday, October 16, 2019

South Koreans are inflicting pain on Japan’s tourism, staying away due to a long-running feud between the two countries that’s spilled over from historical grievances to trade, investment and even military ties.


The number of South Koreans visiting Japan dropped by almost 58 per cent in September from a year ago, data released Wednesday by the Japan National Tourism Organisation showed, while visitors overall increased by about five per cent.


The September blow was cushioned by Japan hosting the Rugby World Cup, one of the globe’s biggest sporting events, which kicked off during the month. The previous month’s data showed a bleaker picture as the overseas visitor numbers fell for only the second time in six years, dragged down by a 48 per cent plunge in South Korean visits in August.


Tourist numbers began to slide in July after Japan slapped stricter export checks on specialty materials essential to South Korea’s tech industry. The feud has grown out of a disagreement over whether Japan has shown sufficient contrition for its 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean Peninsula.


In a positive development, Seoul announced that Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon will travel to Japan next week for the Emperor’s enthronement ceremony. But the clash is casting a shadow over another major event for Japan: Tokyo’s hosting of the 2020 Olympics. Visitor numbers may fall short of the 40 millions Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had hoped for.


Among the worst hit by the dispute are businesses in Japan’s main southwest island of Kyushu that have become popular weekend destinations for South Koreans, thanks to easy access by ferries or low-cost airlines. The total number of foreign visitors flying or sailing directly to Kyushu fell by eight per cent in July, and initial estimates indicate a much bigger fall for August.


“It’s tough,” said Daisuke Hegi, who runs a Korean-language website offering tourist information and bookings at traditional inns, or ryokans. Business is down 80 per cent compared with last year, he said.


While Kyushu is trying to attract more visitors from China and Southeast Asia, it isn’t as easy a sell to those markets compared with other destinations in Japan, according to Hegi. By contrast, South Korean tourists from Busan can reach Fukuoka, Kyushu’s biggest city, in about an hour.


South Koreans are going against the global trend in their reluctance to visit Japan. According to JNTO data, visitor numbers from all other major markets grew, with Chinese tourists up by a quarter, while the number travelling from the U.K. grew by more than 80 per cent to a record of nearly 50,000 visitors.


“I wonder who is benefiting from this situation,” said Hegi. “Kyushu tourism businesses are hurting, but so are South Korean travel companies and airlines.”

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