Japan tourists flock to Taiwan amid Hong Kong chaos, South Korea dispute

Julian Ryall

With domestic headlines in Japan dominated by Hong Kong’s unrest and Tokyo’s rows with South Korea over historical issues, Japanese travellers have been looking further afield for their holidays – which is proving to be a boon for Taiwan.

On Monday, the island welcomed its 2 millionth Japanese visitor of the year, shattering last year’s total – also a record high – with the rest of December still to go.

A total of 1,969,151 Japanese visited Taiwan in 2018, underlining the growing popularity of the island as a holiday destination. The number of annual arrivals in Taiwan from Japan first surpassed 1 million in 2005.

Meanwhile, just 57,179 Japanese visited Hong Kong in October, according to statistics from the Japan National Tourism Organisation – less than half the 115,504 arrivals there were in May. The organisation’s figures for June show a 25.2 per cent year-on-year decrease in the number of Japanese visitors to the city.

Tourist arrivals in Hong Kong have plunged since anti-government protests began. Photo: Xinhua

Total departures for South Korea, meanwhile, held more steady, with 248,541 tourists in October – a slight decrease from May’s 286,273, although the full year figure is expected to show a decline of 14.4 per cent. Figures from June show a 4.6 per cent year-on-year decline in the number of Japanese visitors to Korea.

Yuka Ito, a 40-year-old housewife from Yokohama, said her family chose to visit Taiwan for four days “mostly because my husband had never been there before”.

“We have both been to Hong Kong and South Korea previously so we wanted to go somewhere different, so the problems we see on the news were not really a factor for us,” she said.

Her family took in the sights in and around Taipei, including the mountainous region of Jiufen, which is popular among Japanese tourists for its resemblance to the town from Hayao Miyazaki’s award-winning animated film Spirited Away .

“We all had a great time and we would like to go again,” Ito said. “And I would very much recommend it to other people as well.”

Japanese travel agents said they had seen a surge in interest among visitors inquiring about the self-ruled island.

“It’s really popular at the moment because it’s very close to Japan, just a two-hour flight from Tokyo and obviously much closer from cities in the south of Japan, and the Taiwan dollar is very weak against the yen at the moment,” said Anna Maruyama, of the Tokyo office of the KKday travel agency. “People are also choosing Taiwan because of all the things that are going on in Hong Kong right now.”

Whereas previously, older people, groups of 20-something women and families travelling with children would often opt for sightseeing and shopping breaks in Hong Kong, television coverage of clashes between police and protesters has convinced many to look elsewhere, Maruyama said, adding that it was a similar situation with regards to South Korea.

“There are some political problems between Japan and Korea, so people think it may be better to go somewhere else this year,” she said.

An escalating dispute regarding South Korea and Japan’s shared history has boiled over recently into the realms of trade and business.

Media coverage on both sides has helped fan the flames, but it was news footage that aired in August showing a Japanese tourist being assaulted in Seoul that saw South Korea’s reputation as a safe place for visitors take its mostly serious blow.

The footage – of a South Korean man grabbing a Japanese woman by her hair and forcing her to the floor – went viral in Japan. The man subsequently denied during police questioning that the incident had anything to do with bilateral relations, but the damage was already done in the minds of many Japanese.

Locals and tourists visit a night market in Taipei. Photo: AP

“From the inquiries we have received and because there is a general increase in the number of Japanese travelling abroad at the moment, it looks as if even more people want to go to Taiwan again next year – so that record may well be broken again,” said KKday’s Maruyama.

Kaori Mori, a spokeswoman for Japanese travel giant JTB, said they were seeing a similar uptick in interest for Taiwan, with tourists wanting to sample the cuisine, shop and find “the most beautiful places so they can take photos and put them on their Instagram pages”.

“My personal sense is that other destinations are declining in popularity and while we do not ask customers why they are not going to certain places, I feel that they are not going to Hong Kong because of the problems there,” she said.

“It looks like the situation there is going to continue for some more time yet and it is going to take some time for tourists to go back, I think. If that is the case, then I think that more people will continue to go to Taiwan instead.”

Departures for South Korean cities have also been affected, albeit to a lesser degree, she said.

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