Tourism is getting a lift in Japan, thanks to Chinese visitors. The Japan Tourism Agency says the number of Chinese tourists have jumped 80 percent from last year. Now, the Japanese government is making it even easier for Chinese citizens to visit.
It is tough to walk through Tokyo's glitzy Ginza shopping district without running into Chinese tourists. Many spend heavily at luxury department stores with brand-name purses in one hand, shopping bags in the other.
The Japan Tourism Agency says each Chinese visitor spends more than $1,100 on average - more than visitors from any other country.
Masahide Katsumata, who heads the tourism agency, says shopping is the number one attraction for Chinese tourists. Stops at famous stores and electronics stores are a must for every tour.
That is a welcome sign for Japan's struggling tourism industry, which declined nearly 20 percent last year, in part because of the economic downturn and strong yen. The country is one of the most expensive tourist destinations, especially compared with other Asian countries, such as Thailand and China.
Katsumata says the number of visitors decreased from every country except China.
That is a big reason why the Japanese government eased visa requirements for individual tourists last week, making it easier for the Chinese to visit Japan
Katsumata says the goal is to attract nearly 2 million Chinese tourists this year. Three years from now, the agency hopes to double that number. By 2016, he hopes to attract 6 million Chinese tourists a year.
To reach that goal, the Japanese government is stepping up advertising in China, promoting the country in travel magazines and on TV.
It also is requiring major hotel chains and airport staff to learn basic Mandarin and Cantonese. Signs at tourist attractions and train stations will soon be translated to Chinese, in addition to English. And more stores will begin accepting Chinese debit cards to make shopping easier for visitors looking to buy.
Next year, Katsumata says Japanese leaders plan to ease a law that requires tour guides to pass a rigorous language test. That will help tour agencies recruit Chinese speaking guides, as they struggle to keep up with demand.
Retailers say they are noticing a difference. Ma Yao Yuen works at Takeya, a popular discount store in the Ueno neighborhood. He says he has seen a gradual increase in Chinese tourists over the past five years - but the numbers have jumped since the new visa requirements took affect this month.
He says a majority of their Chinese customers used to be businessmen. But he has have seen more Chinese families come through the door in the past five to six days.
A tourist from China says the changes in visa requirements convinced his family to take the three-hour flight from Shanghai. He bought a $4,000 Rolex watch at Takeya, while his wife bought a Gucci bag.
Ma says sales from Chinese tourists have more than doubled at his store this year alone.
The new visa requirements will give some businesses a needed boost as Japan recovers slowly from the financial crisis. However, there are doubts the increase in Chinese tourism will have much effect on the overall economy.
While Chinese tourists spend more than any other visitors, the new visas are expected to attract more families and middle-class visitors. Economists and tourism experts say they may not be as eager to spend on luxuries such as expensive watches and couture handbags, and will spend less per person.