China Lifts Ban on Group Tours to Japan, Sparking Concerns of Overcrowding

China announced on August 10, 2023 that it has lifted its ban on Chinese travel agencies selling group tours to Japan, a restriction that had been in place since January 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision is expected to lead to a huge influx of tourists from China, which was the largest source of foreign visitors to Japan prior to the pandemic.

In 2019, around 9.6 million Chinese tourists visited Japan, accounting for 30% of all foreign visitors and spending an estimated 1.77 trillion yen ($13 billion).

Millions of Chinese Tourists Expected to Flood Top Destinations

Popular Sites Like Kyoto Fear Being Overrun

The lifting of the ban has sparked concerns among locals and foreign residents in top tourist destinations like Kyoto, which saw record crowds this summer even without Chinese tour groups.

“I’m dreading the thought of huge crowds of tour groups clogging up sites like Kinkakuji and Arashiyama,” said Kyoto resident Sato Tanaka. “Even now, with only individual travelers from China, it’s hard to walk down the streets of Gion without constantly being jostled.”

Kyoto saw a record 11 million visitors in 2019 before the pandemic. Experts estimate that number could swell to over 15 million in 2024 if Chinese group tours return in full force.

Businesses Eager for Chinese Tourist Dollars

While individuals worry about overcrowding, businesses catering to tourists are eager for Chinese tourists to return. Duty-free shops, hotels, restaurants and transportation providers stand to gain from the big-spending visitors.

Chinese tourists accounted for over $13 billion in spending in Japan in 2019, around 16% of total spending by foreign visitors. On average, Chinese visitors spend more per day than any other nationality according to government statistics.

“I’ve already increased my stock of luxury brand cosmetics and skincare products in preparation for more Chinese shoppers,” said the manager of a duty-free store in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district. “I just hope we have enough staff to handle the crowds.”

Details Still Unclear on Return of Group Tours

Even with this news of Chinese government lifting the ban, it remains unclear how soon group tours will actually resume. Travel agencies need time to arrange flights, hotels and other logistics, a process that could take weeks or months.

Japan also limits visas for individual Chinese tourists, which could be a bottleneck for travel agents trying to arrange tours. Reports indicate there is currently a 2-month wait for visa appointments at the Japanese embassy in China.

Experts estimate it could take 6 months or more before Chinese group tours are back to pre-pandemic levels. Still, the lifted ban signals that Japan’s tourism industry will continue to recover rapidly from COVID-19 impacts. Locals and businesses alike are bracing for the changes to come.

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