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Japan woos visitors with free tours, fine dining

Just the 30th favorite nation to visit, Japan hopes to boost tourism – and the economy.

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Say ‘Tokyo’!: Tourists in Japan’s capital pose with women dressed as characters from ‘Memoirs of a Geisha.’ Some say the film helped attract more foreigners, especially Americans, to Japan.

Takehiko Kambayashi

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Last November, the eminent Michelin Guide awarded 191 stars to 150 restaurants in Tokyo – far more than 65 stars that restaurants in Paris, the previous record-holder, had.

It was an unexpected selling point for Japan, which on Jan. 20 launched its fourth annual campaign to attract more tourists. The government hopes that a strengthened tourism industry will boost the economy, especially amid growing concerns about how badly US economic problems might affect Japan.

The six-week promotion period, called "Yokoso (Welcome) Japan Weeks," is part of a goal set in 2003 to double the number of foreign tourists to 10 million by 2010. "I would like people from overseas to visit Japan and to gain momentum for economic revitalization," said then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

About 8.3 million tourists visited Japan last year. Nine million people are expected this year. But Japan has a long way to go: New York City alone received 8.5 million foreign visitors in 2007.

At home, the government faces a longstanding ambivalence toward foreigners. A 2003 survey shows that, while 48 percent of those polled would like to see more foreign tourists, 32 percent don't. About 90 percent of them blame increased tourism for a "rise in crimes committed by foreigners."

To break down barriers and woo tourists, the Japanese government has been distributing pamphlets and coupons, participating in international exhibitions, and offering discount tours.

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