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Kyoto Pref. had record 88 mil. visitors in 2019; virus pushing pivot to domestic tourists

Sannen-zaka, a sloped road leading from Kiyomizudera in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, is seen full of tourists on May 2, 2019. (Mainichi/Ai Kawahira)

KYOTO -- The number of tourists to Kyoto Prefecture in western Japan reached a record high of some 87.9 million people in 2019 according to data released by the Kyoto Prefectural Government on June 17.

It was the first time in four years that visitor numbers to the prefecture rose on the previous year. The city of Kyoto itself, home to many of Japan's foremost tourist attractions, received about 53.25 million visitors, which was also its first increase in four years. In both cases the figures were bolstered by robust inbound tourist numbers, but with the coronavirus situation worsening since spring, 2020's results are expected to show a huge fall.

With government calls to refrain from travel to other prefectures being lifted across the country from June 19, among other changes, the Kyoto prefectural and city governments are looking for ways to attract domestic tourists. But with no sense as to when it might be possible to again welcome foreign tourists, who represent more than a quarter of spending by visitors to the area, the novel coronavirus is expected to cast a shadow over Kyoto's tourism industry.

According to the Kyoto Prefectural Government, in 2019 some 87.91 million people visited the prefecture, an increase of 2.86 million on 2018, thereby posting it above 2015's 87.48 million tourists to become the year with the most visitors on record. In 2018, a number of natural disasters including earthquakes in northern Osaka Prefecture, typhoons, and torrential rain had an adverse effect on visitor numbers, and 2019's totals appear to have trended upwards in response. Some 15 million people stayed in accommodation in the prefecture, with 25.9% of them, 3.9 million people, being inbound tourists.

Individual regions have also seen an uptick in visitor numbers, with the six regions including the city of Kyoto seeing higher tourist totals than in 2018. In particular, municipalities in the Chutan region including the city of Fukuchiyama logged a rise of 9.5%, while the Nantan region including the city of Kameoka also saw a significant jump of 8.3%. Both cities are known for having a connection to feudal warlord Akechi Mitsuhide, who is currently the focus of Japanese public broadcaster NHK's Taiga period drama "Kirin ga Kuru." It appears that the 2019 figures owe some of their uptick to the news that the drama would be broadcast in 2020.

While overall tourist spending in 2019 was about 1.302 trillion yen, down by some 67.6 billion yen on 2018, it still represented the fifth consecutive year in which takings had stayed at the 1 trillion yen mark. Municipalities outside of the city of Kyoto recorded a total increase in tourist custom of 39 billion yen, a 6.2% rise, for an overall taking of 65.8 billion yen and the seventh consecutive year of growth. Separated by municipality, the city of Kyotanabe, which has seen investment in new hotel and bathing facilities, saw spending from tourists rise by 2.5 times those of 2018 levels, with a recorded total of 1.89 billion yen.

But when broken down between the city of Kyoto and the other prefectural regions, it becomes apparent that while the regions receive some 34.39 million visitors, 39% of the overall total, the 65.8 billion yen in spending it sees represents only 5% of total custom. It is still clearly the case that financial activity is concentrated in the prefectural capital. The prefectural government has set targets to get regional tourism up to 43 million people spending 100 billion yen by 2022, but in the present climate achieving this will be difficult.

Due to the novel coronavirus, rates of usage for hotels and other businesses, as well as the economic outlook, have dipped precipitously. The general economic report announced by the Bank of Japan's Kyoto branch in June describes the state of tourism industries as in a "widespread downturn." A survey of major hotels by the Kyoto City Tourism Association taken in April showed that the number of foreign tourists staying in their accommodation was down by 99.7% of April 2019 totals, with only around 1,000 people using the services.

The Kyoto Prefecture tourism office said, "This time, travel itself is being refrained from, and we expect it to have a greater effect than in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. With it currently being difficult to bring back inbound tourism, for the time being we will have to promote domestic tourism."

Among visitors to Kyoto Prefecture, some 60% visit the city of Kyoto. According to the city's comprehensive tourism survey, it saw 770,000 more people, a rise of 1.5%, in 2019 than in 2018, for a total of 53.52 million tourists and the first increase in four years. While Japanese visitor numbers fell by about 40,000 to 44.66 million, inbound tourist numbers supported the overall rise with an increase of approximately 810,000 people, or 10.1%, to 8.86 million.

Of the whole, 24.6%, some 13.17 million visitors, stayed in hotels, while daytrip tourists made up about 40.35 million people. Inbound tourists represented around 3.79 million guests, and split by country or region, the greatest portion of them were from China, at about 1.15 million people, with 477,000 tourists from the U.S., and 423,000 from Taiwan.

Spending in the prefectural capital by visitors reached some 1.24 trillion yen, the fourth year in a row that the totals have topped 1 trillion. Of that, 26.8%, 331.8 billion yen of spending, was done by inbound tourists, with per-head custom among foreign national visitors coming to 1.85 the rate of domestic travelers. The city government reported that tourism represented an added value of 802.6 billion yen, equivalent to 12.4% of the city's gross domestic product in fiscal 2016, with spending by inbound tourists making up a significant chunk of that money.

From June 19, the city government intends to gradually restart work to attract visitors, but the head of its tourism strategy division said, "It's a fact that there's a large economic effect from inbound tourists, but with controls on arrivals to this country, all we can do is think of new initiatives. We want to work to create new demand among visitors from areas and regions in this country."

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Odanaka, Kyoto Bureau)

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