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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Chinese Tourists Becoming Thriftier

Nahoko Yamada

Jun. 1, 2016

Foreign tourists are pouring into Japan, especially from China. Many go on shopping sprees but they're starting to spend a little less, and on different things.

Japan is experiencing an unprecedented tourism boom. According to the Japan Tourism Agency, visitors from abroad gave the country's economy a $30 billion shot in the arm last year.

Chinese tourists accounted for 40 percent of it. Their spending sprees became so famous that a new term was coined in Japanese -- "bakugai," meaning "explosive shopping."

But now, although the number of tourists keeps growing, they tend to spend less, and differently.

Business is slower these days at electronics shops in Tokyo. Just a year ago, the aisles were bustling with free-spending Chinese tourists. They bought up high-tech rice cookers, digital cameras and other upscale products.

But this year, shoppers' tastes have changed. Customers are looking for cheaper items such as water boilers and beauty products.

One customer says that's because the "exchange rate is not good."

"Customers are spending 20 percent to 40 percent less on average than last year," says Shuntaro Kuramochi, who works for Yodobashi Camera.

Shoppers are also avoiding costly items at department stores. Luxury goods like expensive watches are sitting unsold in the cases.

Along with this change in taste, there is also a change in the way Chinese tourists shop. Instead of snapping up things in a rush, they're now taking their time and enjoying the Japanese shopping experience.

Yomi is from Shanghai, and she wanted to know what she could do about the blemishes on her face.

A consultant explained the best way to apply the skin-care products and make-up. The cosmetics shop says that more Chinese customers are seeking consultations, like Yomi.

"I'm quite amazed and happy with the service," she says.

It's been 7 years since Japan relaxed visa rules for individual Chinese tourists. Now many of the people arriving are return visitors and their shopping habits are changing. Today, more tourists are looking for experiences -- ones that offer a taste of Japan.

"I just want to walk around like the locals and eat good food," one tourist says.

Another area seeing a boost is medical tourism. On her third visit from Shanghai, Zhang Ting Fang made an appointment with a doctor.

"I'm worried about my high blood pressure. Also, my face has been turning red recently," she told a local doctor.

Zhang's father died of heart disease, and now that she's pushing 60, she decided it was time to have her own heart checked out.

Over the course of a 3-hour exam, she was given a battery of tests, including an MRI and echocardiogram. The bill came to about $900, but she felt it was worth it for the peace of mind: nothing serious was found.

"I feel reassured because the doctor was very attentive and the test was detailed," Zhang says.

The interest in Japanese medical services has spawned a new industry.

One start-up called MRSO, for example, made the arrangements for Zhang's clinic visit. The company says it sets up over 100 such appointments for Chinese tourists every month.

"They usually choose to get a full checkup, and so they end up spending about twice as much as an average Japanese patient. So the medical clinics view them as good customers," says Kengo Matsuo, who works for MRSO.

The service includes translating the test results into Chinese and sending them to the customers. The company expects the number of clients to grow by 50 percent this year.

Meanwhile, the department store is trying out ways to keep Chinese shoppers coming back. At a seminar, sales assistants are taught what appeals to Chinese shoppers.

"They like the color red. The combination of red and gold or yellow is the best," they're told.

The instructor suggests that salespeople recommend red-colored items or red and gold gift wrap. The company believes small things like this will help bring Chinese customers back.

"We are expecting the number of inbound customers to double in the near future," says Keiichi Ono, an official with Daimaru Matsuzakaya Department Stores. "They are growing increasingly important for our business."

The Japanese government has set a target of 40 million foreign tourists a year by 2020. Japanese officials also want inbound consumption to more than double to $80 billion per year by 2020.

The key to achieving those ambitious goals is to keep visitors coming back for more. It's a challenge that many companies appear ready to take up.

Medical tourism will play a key role, and the Japan Tourism Agency is already taking action. It has published on its website a list of hospitals and clinics that cater to foreign visitors.