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Yen's rise against the dollar cuts both ways. America's welcome mat out for Japanese tourists, now coming in record numbers

Despite the furor over United States-Japan trade imbalances - with electronics, cars, and computer chips flooding the American market - another Japanese export will hit the American shores this year in record numbers: tourists. ``I want to see Disneyland, Grand Canyon, San Franciso, and Las Vegas,'' says Kazuo Takahashi, a marketing manager from Iwate. He and his wife, Fumiko, are taking the ``honeymoon tour.'' They say they have dreamed for eight years of coming to the United States.

With the yen at record highs in relation to the dollar - around 146 yen to $1 now, compared to 180 a year ago and 273 in 1977 - their dream has come true.

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``We want to see tall buildings, wide streets, and open country,'' says Mrs. Takahashi through an interpreter. ``And buy clothes.''

Two million of the Takahashi's compatriots will follow suit this year, responding to the favorable exchange rate and unprecedented barrage of individual and group package deals offered by both American and Japanese companies.

That is a 25-to-44 percent rise over last year, depending on whom you ask, in a Japanese tourist influx that has been steadily rising since 1973.

The prospect has Washington, and US tour agents from sea to shining sea, rubbing their hands: The Japanese will spend $2 billion on lodging, transportation, fashion goods, and souvenirs.

``The Japanese come to buy,'' says Hiro Irita, president of the Los Angeles subsidiary of Japan Travel Bureau, the largest private travel bureau in the world. ``They know what they want,'' he says, citing leather handbags, shoes, cosmetics, and designer clothes. ``And they bring the money to get it.''

Japanese tourists also know what they want to see. ``On the West Coast they want Los Angeles and San Francisco, sometimes Las Vegas,'' says Toshi Arai, manager of the Japan National Tourist Organization in Tokyo. ``After that, it's south to New Orleans and Florida, [then to] Chicago, New York, and Boston.''

Ron Erdmann, market research analyst for the US Department of Commerce, pulls out figures that say 73 percent of Japanese visiting the US go to Hawaii. California and Guam are second highest, and New York is a relatively paltry 1 percent. Nearly half the vacation travelers are coming for the first time, he says, and the typical stay is eight days.

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Because of language and cultural barriers, 87 percent stay in Japanese groups.

If there is a trend this year in Japanese travel to the US, it is packages that try to cater to the young and those willing to travel alone. Mr. Irita says his company offers 200 different itineraries under the major brand name Look Tours, ranging from $1,200 to $5,000.

But requests for individual itineraries - separate hotels, translators, and transportation - are rising dramatically.

To respond, his company is offering five-day packages with Pallette Tours which range from $700 to $900, including airfare and hotel. Clients get two nights in San Francisco, three in Los Angeles. Japan Travel Bureau also is offering a stop in Honolulu and a new bus tour of the West Coast that includes Carmel, Calif. - all for $2,300.

``Not unless they know the [English] language well do they go off on their own,'' says Japan Air Line's Morris Simoncelli. He adds that only the major hotel chains are equipped to deal with Japanese tourists, usually only in meager ways such as bilingual signs for entrances, lobbies, telephones, and cashiers.

One exception to that is the largest hotel in Los Angeles, the Bonaventure, with 1,500 rooms. Five tiers of upscale stores surround a cavernous lobby. Every store has welcome signs in Japanese characters, as well as descriptions of merchandise. Many have Japanese attendants.

``Ninety percent of our clientele is Japanese,'' says Paul Kurdian, manager of Arto's, a luggage boutique. ``If they don't come, we're out of business.''

Mr. Kurdian says the big shopping draw is famous-name imports such as Nina Ricci, Bally, and Christian Dior, which go for nearly half the price here as in Tokyo. And he adds that the Japanese are ``tremendous spenders,'' not only for themselves, but through a great tradition of purchasing souvenirs for family members.

The Takahashis are staying in the Bonaventure and feel the language aids are a big help in walking around on their own. They do not speak a word of English. They will be with other Japanese for their eight-day stay.

They are on a specially priced Japan Air Lines honeymoon special known as JalPak. They said the airline has a famous singer barraging the television airwaves across Japan telling tourists to ``go to America.''

The Youthful Marui department chain in Tokyo has been carrying a nightly, five-minute spot called ``New Yorking,'' which highlights jazz caf'es and new discos. And the American Hotel & Motel Association went to Tokyo in March to produce a video on how to target Japanese clients.

Though much of the money spent by Japanese tourists goes to travel agents in that country, industry analysts say about a third of the tourists' total trip expenditure goes into shopping.

But many are just as content to stay on the road.

``We don't want to shop,'' says Mari Yakoyama, from Tokyo. ``We come from a small country and want to see a big one.''

``We also want to see football and baseball games,'' says her husband, Mitsuaki, ``and to forget about Japan.''

The couple is going to Disneyland, but only to compare it to the one built recently in Tokyo.

The US is not the only place Japanese are visiting. The embassy in Tokyo reports a record 76,864 visa applications, up 44 percent from a year ago. Other hot spots include Singapore, Hong Kong, and Thailand.

``Money is the big determining factor in making travel decisions,'' says Erdmann. ``And the yen is strong all over. So the Japanese are off.''

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