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Editorial: Drop in S. Korean tourists to Japan a lost cultural exchange opportunity

The number of South Korean tourists visiting Japan has sharply decreased, due largely to the South Korean public's dim opinion of Tokyo's tightening of controls on exports of certain materials to their country.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), the number of South Korean sightseers who visited Japan in July decreased 7.6% from a year earlier.

The Chuseok holiday period began in South Korea on Sept. 12. Many South Koreans apparently flew to Southeast Asia and other regions this year. Until last year, Tokyo, Osaka in western Japan and Fukuoka in southwestern Japan were popular destinations for South Korean tourists during the holiday period.

The number of South Korean visitors to Japan is feared to fall further after the tourism season ends in late September. Because of this, South Korean airlines have decided to suspend or decrease flights to and from Japan. Even if most tourists stay in Japan for just a handful of days, these are important opportunities for them to interact directly with Japan's culture. It is regrettable that their opportunities to do so are decreasing.

The outcome of an opinion poll released by the Genron NPO this year shows that the ratio of South Koreans who had a good impression of Japan had hit a record high of 31.7%. The steady improvement of South Koreans' image of Japan corresponded with the increase in the number of tourists coming from that country with each passing year.

One cannot help but wonder whether views on Japan based on indirect information could spread in South Korea if the number of South Korean visitors to Japan continues to dwindle. It would be alarming if diverse views on Japan among South Koreans, views nurtured by first-hand exchanges between the peoples of the two countries, were to be lost.

The Japanese government is putting on a front of composure, saying that the number of inbound tourists from China and Southeast Asia as well as other regions has been growing considerably.

However, South Koreans had accounted for nearly one-fourth of all inbound tourists. It is thus obvious that recent trends are adversely affecting the drive of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to attract 40 million visitors a year.

According to the Japan Tourism Agency, South Korean visitors to Japan spent a combined 590 billion yen in 2018. In particular, Kyushu in southwestern Japan and the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, where South Koreans accounted for the largest percentage of inbound tourists, are beginning to suffer. There are fears that the recent trend could deal a serious blow to these local economies.

Officials of municipalities in Hokkaido have raised banners bearing the message, "Welcome to Hokkaido" in Hangul script at local airports. However, these local bodies have reportedly been flooded with criticism that the friendly message is unneeded.

Still, Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki underscores the importance of exchanges with South Koreans.

Local bodies and the tourism industry appear hesitant to openly campaign to attract South Koreans to Japan in view of severe public opinion on South Korea. The government, which is striving to transform Japan into a tourism-oriented country, should take proactive measures to encourage South Koreans to visit Japan rather than leaving the matter entirely to local governments and tourism businesses.

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