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LCC airlines rush to boost int'l flights to local airports in Japan

Visitors who arrived at Hanamaki Airport on Taiwanese low-cost carrier Tigerair Taiwan's first regular flight there pose for a commemorative photo in the city of Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture, on Aug. 1, 2018. (Photo courtesy of the Iwate Prefectural Government)

Low-cost carrier (LCC) airlines are scrambling to launch international flights to and from local airports in Japan to attract foreign tourists, specifically those from other Asian countries who come to Japan often and have come specifically to visit regional areas.

The number of regular international flight routes operated by LCCs bound for regional airports in Japan more than doubled to 65 during the 2018 summer period starting in March -- up from 31 in the summer of 2016.

The Mainichi Shimbun tallied the numbers of such routes at airports in Japan, excluding the major terminals of Haneda (Tokyo International) Airport and Narita Airport in the greater Tokyo area, Kansai International Airport near Osaka and Chubu Centrair International Airport near Nagoya in central Japan.

In Kyushu in southern Japan, LCC airlines now offer international flights at every major airport since December 2017, and have added flights to Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. LCCs also began offering international flight services in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido and the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan.

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and other sources, there are 163 international air routes offered at local airports as of the summer of 2018, and LCC airlines account for about 40 percent. The ratio has roughly doubled from about 20 percent in the summer of 2016.

Taiwanese LCC Tigerair Taiwan inaugurated a route between Fukuoka in southern Japan and Kaohsiung, Taiwan, last December, and another between Komatsu in the northwestern prefecture of Ishikawa and Taipei, Taiwan's capital, in January. In March, it added yet another between Asahikawa in Hokkaido and Taipei and one between Hanamaki in the northern prefecture of Iwate and Taipei in August. An executive of the company is eager to create new demand by expanding the number of available routes.

Behind these new routes lies an increase of tourists who are unsatisfied with the "Golden Route," a popular itinerary to go around the Tokyo metropolitan area and the Kansai region in western Japan. According to the Japan Tourism Agency, the number of foreigners who visited Japan in 2017 stood at 28.69 million -- more than three times that of 2012. The amount of money spent by those travelers reached 4.4 trillion yen -- more than four-fold when comparing the same time period. .

About 60 percent of the tourists had visited Japan before, and some 20 percent of visitors from Hong Kong and Taiwan have visited Japan at least 10 times. Frequent trips to Japan have drawn visitors to go off the beaten path and visit regional areas.

Local neighborhoods where the airports are located and the surrounding municipalities expect that the trend will boost the local tourism industry. On the other hand, it's an urgent task for local cities to strengthen their systems to accept foreign visitors, which are not as developed as those in large cities such as Tokyo.

At a ceremony to celebrate the opening of a route by Tigerair Taiwan at Hanamaki Airport in Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture, on Aug. 1, Iwate Gov. Takuya Tasso welcomed the first international air route for the airport, which has been a dream for the area since the airport opened in 1964. "This is an important event that should be engraved in history. It will help us rebuild after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake," he said.

According to the Iwate Prefectural Government, Taiwanese tourists who enter Japan from Hanamaki Airport tend to come around peak cherry blossom viewing periods and visit Aomori and Akita prefectures in northern Japan, in addition to Chuson-ji Temple, a World Heritage site. However, there are still few tourists who visit areas along the Pacific Ocean farther to the east, such as the Sanriku Coast famous for its beautiful indented coastline.

A prefectural government official said, "There is still room for the development of new routes for tourists in Iwate, and even more in Tohoku as a whole."

In Kagoshima Prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu, the total monthly number of South Korean lodgers increased somewhere between 1.6 to 3.6 times that of the same month during the previous year after Eastar Jet of South Korea opened a route to Seoul last November. In Miyazaki Prefecture, also in Kyushu, the number of South Korean tourists in January was 2.2 times more than a year before, after the South Korean LCC opened a route to Seoul there last December as well. It is expected that tourists will stay for a longer period of time when they can travel to a regional area directly.

In response to the number of foreign tourists continuing to grow, the seven prefectures in Kyushu (Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Kagoshima, Miyazaki and Oita) and Yamaguchi Prefecture in western Japan started a telephone translation service in 15 languages on Aug. 1. The service aims to encourage visitors to travel around to a greater number of areas. Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku in southwestern Japan also started a telephone translation service by independently in mid-August.

Akiko Kawaguchi, a senior researcher of the Japan Travel Bureau Foundation, who is familiar with trends concerning foreign tourists, said, "It's likely that LCC flights will continue to increase and it will serve as a chance to develop local areas. It's important to improve options such as stays at hot springs or old private houses and chances to try local foods, which would attract tourists who visit Japan with a clear goal in mind."

(Japanese original by Yuichi Utsunomiya, Osaka Business News Department)

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