Japan Tourism Suffers as South Korean Visitors Stay Away in Feud

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

The extent of the damage is likely to be reflected in Japan’s tourist figures for September, set for release on Wednesday. The previous month’s data showed overseas visitor numbers fell for only the second time in six years, dragged down by a 48% plunge in visits from South Korea. Tourists from the country typically account for about a quarter of visitors to neighbor Japan, and the percentage is even higher in western regions closer to South Korea.

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 colonization 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 without a clearer sign of a thaw, 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 million Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had hoped to attract.

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 8% 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% compared with last year, he said.

“It’s a kind of invisible atmosphere, an emotion in South Korea that’s making it difficult to travel to Japan. We can’t see the way out,” Hegi added.

By Isabel Reynolds, Bloomberg

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