Last year's record total comes despite a series of natural disasters. The number of visitors last September declined from the same period the year prior for the first time in more than five years. That month, a typhoon damaged Kansai International Airport and a major earthquake hit the northern prefecture of Hokkaido.
Tourists from East Asia made up most of the total. Visitors from China accounted for 8.38 million, up 13.9 percent. It is the first time the total tops 8 million. South Korea was second, with 7.54 million tourists, up 5.6 percent. Taiwan was next, at 4.76 million, up 4.2 percent, and Hong Kong was fourth at 2.2 million. These four made up 73 percent of all travelers to Japan.
2018 saw foreign visitors spend more money in the country than ever before. The Japan Tourism Agency says visitors spent about 4.5 trillion yen, or 41.5 billion dollars last year. That is also a record.
Chinese tourists accounted for nearly 34 percent of all spending, at over 14 billion dollars. South Korean and Taiwanese travelers followed at about 5.4 billion dollars. Hong Kong tourists spent 3.1 billion dollars.
The total amount was up, but the per-tourist amount is on the slide. The 2018 figure was 152,594 yen, or about 1,400 dollars. Although it can't be compared directly due to a change in the methodology of the survey, the downward trend is continuing.
The decline is attributed to the growing reluctance of Chinese visitors to spend big. Their shopping sprees have shored up the Japanese retail industry for several years, but the average amount spent by Chinese shoppers in 2018 was 110,923 yen or about 1,000 dollars -- down for the third year in a row.
The government has set a goal of nearly doubling spending by foreign visitors to about 74 billion dollars by 2020. Tourism officials are planning to put in place entertainment options and unique experiences to attract foreign spending.
But there is still a way to go to hit the target. The survey shows that amusement attractions account for about only 4 percent of the money foreign tourists spend in the country.
Earlier this month, Japan launched a departure tax. People leaving the country will be charged 1,000 yen. Revenue from the measure will be used to fund services to make travel easier and more convenient in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics. The government plans to introduce facial recognition at airports this year to speed up the immigration process. It also plans to install multilingual signs and informational plaques for foreign visitors at national parks and cultural sites.
On the other hand, the rise in tourists has also led to some negative effects. In Tokyo and Kyoto, residents say more visitors are littering and making loud noises at night as the number of lodgings has risen. Trespassing and graffiti have also been reported near tourist sites.
Japan’s Tourism Agency chief Hiroshi Tabata says he hopes to attract more visitors from a wide range of countries in order to hit the 40 million target. He says one plan is to increase the number of repeaters, or tourists revisiting the country. He says they tend to visit rural areas, so Japan needs to do a better job of publicizing destinations that exist away from the popular urban centers.
Tabata adds that officials will continue to improve transportation, internet connection, and multilingual guidance at places like cultural sites and key train stations so travelers will be able to enjoy stress-free vacations throughout the country.