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Dispute between China and Japan affects tourism

Japan’s claim over the Senkaku Islands generated massive protests in China over the last days with angry mobs in China targeting Japanese business. Some companies such as Panasonic and clothing retailer Uniqlo already suspended their operations while tourism starts to take a dive…

BEIJING/TOKYO – Frictions and tensions between China and Japan hit regularly the news as nationalism in both countries remain particularly strong while defiance between the two economic super-powers is a permanent feature of their relations. But this time it seems that Japan’s move to ‘nationalize’ inhabited islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China generated extremely vehement protests in Mainland China which claims the islands’ sovereignty.

Protests in front of Japanese embassies and consulates in China turned ugly. Mobs in Chinese larger cities attacked Japanese factories, retail shops, calling even for the boycott of sushi and Japanese noodles’ restaurants ! Japanese companies in return started to close down some of their outlets in China as it has been the case for Panasonic, Toyota or the camera maker Canon as well as for Japanese department stores or for the fashion brand Uniqlo.

The protest now reaches tourism and air transport. Chinese low-cost Spring Airlines reported of cancellations of charter flights with large group of Chinese tourists to Japan in October. JTB Corp., Kinki Nippon Tourist Co. and Nippon Travel Agency Co. said on their side that cancellations of tour reservations for individual Japanese travellers have not increased significantly, but new reservations considerably slowed down.

But the situation deteriorates rapidly: The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) forecasts that the number of Chinese visitor to Japan may decline as much as 20 % because of the dispute over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. A slump in demand from its second-biggest overseas market would be a worrying sign for Japan fragilized tourism industry which still tries to recover from last year’s tsunami and nuclear-power crisis. International Ltd. (CTRP), owner of China’s biggest travel portal, has halted Japan promotions ahead of a week-long Chinese holiday starting Oct. 1, while travel agents are cancelling trips. The management does not hide that they did it to express their anger. China Comfort, which operates more than 5,000 travel agents nationwide, has canceled all of its Japan trips and is refunding customers. There have been cancellations of corporate group tours to mark the anniversary of bilateral relations. Some schools taking class trips to China have voiced concerns about safety.

According to All Nippon Airways, cancellations for the month of November start to multiply. For the time being, no flights have been cancelled but if the situation continues, it is likely that airlines will start to trim down their timetable.

After tensions over the collision of a Chinese fishing boat and the Japan Coast Guard occurred in September 2010, the number of participants in China circuits handled by seven major Japanese travel agencies declined by 38 % in October 2010 compared to a year earlier, by 54 % in November and 65 % in December. Chinese travellers to Japan tumbled during the same period by 16%.

Japanese travellers visiting China reached 3.66 million in 2011 while Chinese visitors hit 1.04 million. After dropping last year by 26%, Mainland China travellers to Japan had started to recover: from January to July, total arrivals surged 72% from a year earlier to 947,600, trailing only South Korea, according to the Japan tourism board’s data.

Table- Evolution of arrivals from Japan to China PRC and from China PRC to Japan from 2008 to 2011 (‘000)

(Sources: JNTO-JTB)

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Luc Citrinot a French national is a freelance journalist and consultant in tourism and air transport with over 20 years experience. Based in Paris and Bangkok, he works for various travel and air transport trade publications in Europe and Asia.