In 1995, a modest 3.3 million travellers went to Japan, a fascinating land of ancient temples, neon skyscrapers, snow-capped mountains and sandy beaches. That year it was the 34th most visited country on the planet, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), behind the likes of Bulgaria, Ukraine and Belgium.
Growth was steady, if unspectacular, for the next decade or two. In 1998, 4.1 million overseas travellers spent at least one night on Japanese soil, making it the 33rd most visited nation. In 2005, 6.7 million went, moving it to 32nd on the list. It rose one more place, to 31st, in 2010, when foreign arrivals totalled 8.6 million.
The country took a hit after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011, and in 2012, visits fell to 8.4 million. Since 2013, however, something remarkable has happened.
Annual arrivals have soared by more almost 23 million, making Japan - by some distance - the decade's fastest growing major destination. The UNWTO estimates that 31.2 million overseas travellers stayed in Japan in 2018, a rise of 263 per cent since 2010. It is suddenly the 11th most visited country on the planet.
Australia has been a contributor to this, with the number of visitors surging from 150,000 in 2009 to 486,000 in the 12 months to July this year. That's an increase of 324 per cent. Japan has also consistently rated as the top destination on Traveller.com.au in the past five years.
It is by no means the only nation to have seen rapid growth in recent years. Worldwide tourism is booming, driven by the increasing affordability of flights and the rise of China's - and, to a lesser extent, India's - globetrotting middle class. But Japan's surge outstrips its rivals. Overseas arrivals to Thailand, for example, another major destination to have seen massive growth, have risen by just 141 per cent since 2010.
What went right?
Japan's rise demonstrates the value of cutting red tape. In 2013 the country relaxed visa restrictions for visitors from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Since 2016 it has been slowly easing restrictions for Chinese citizens. In 2017 it became easier for travellers from Armenia and Azerbaijan to visit, and last year those from India, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine became the latest to benefit. A total of 68 nationalities can now visit Japan as a tourist without a visa, while in 2020 a new electronic system will be introduced for those that still need to apply.
The rise of the Chinese tourist has also fuelled Japan's boom. In the first year of the new millennium, a modest 10.5m overseas trips were made by Chinese residents. Fast forward to 2017 and the figure was 149.7m – an astounding increase of 1,326 per cent. In less than two decades China has grown from travel minnows to the world's most powerful outbound market, leapfrogging the US – and leaving it in its wake. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) Chinese tourists overseas spent $277.3bn in 2018, up from around $10bn in the year 2000. Collectively, America's globetrotters parted with a relatively paltry $144.2bn.
In 2014 China overtook South Korea as Japan's biggest source market and now provides more than six million annual visitors. For comparison, just over one million travel to Japan from the US each year.
The falling value of the Japanese yen has been another factor.
One US dollar bought around ¥80, on average, in 2012. That rose to ¥98 in 2013, ¥112 in 2014, and more than ¥120 in 2015. It currently stands at around ¥107, still way up on the start of the decade. Sterling goes further too, with one pound currently worth about ¥133 - up from ¥129 in 2012.
What is going wrong?
Unchecked tourism is good for the economy - but it causes problems. Rapid growth means strained infrastructure and overcrowding in big cities and at major attractions. During recent years we have seen rising tension between locals and visitors in destinations including Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, Madrid and Mallorca, and "overtourism" has become something of a buzzword.
These problems have affected Japan too. Last year The Japan Times reported on what the country's media calls "kankō kōgai," or "tourism pollution". Kyoto is the key battleground, it said, with residents claiming the city is so overrun they can't use local buses or get a reservation in their favourite restaurants. The city's "miyabi", a refined atmosphere unique to Kyoto, has been destroyed, they say.
The Japan Tourism Agency has responded by launching an investigation to uncover the worst affected areas, and devise a response, but the situation could get worse before it gets better. The Rugby World Cup and next year's Olympics will surely lure even more travellers to Japan, and the country's government has spoken of its aim to raise overseas arrivals to more than 40 million by 2020. In an attempt to address the overtourism threat, overseas visitors - since January 2019 - have been charged a ¥1,000 exit tax, with the funds earmarked for improving tourist infrastructure. More welcome, perhaps, are suggestions to market more sustainable trips and lesser-known corners of the country, away from Tokyo, Kyoto and Mount Fuji.
The Telegraph, London