Why tourists in Japan shop more for jewelry and handicrafts

Post-pandemic tourists in Japan are increasingly buying folk crafts and jewelry, while sales of cosmetics and medicines have declined

Post-pandemic tourists in Japan are increasingly buying folk crafts and jewelry, while sales of cosmetics and medicines have declined, reflecting the changing demographics of visitors as more people from Europe come and Chinese nationals stay at home.

Average spending on traditional crafts per visitor was ¥13,338 ($92) in the July-September quarter, up 80% from the same period in 2019, according to the Japan Tourism Agency, continuing a trend that began in early 2023 .Cosmetics sales shrank 30% over the same time period.

Although inbound tourism is one of the few bright spots in Japan’s shaky economic recovery, drugstores and retailers can no longer count on busloads of travelers from China clearing shelves, a common sight by 2019. Fewer spenders from the mainland also reflects the slowing economy there, despite a weaker yen, making tours to the archipelago more affordable.

“I wanted something Japanese and I found this shop on the Internet,” said Daniel Forrester, who was visiting from New York, as he paid ¥90,000 for a lacquer box in Aoyama Square for the traditional crafts. “I’ll use this to store pens in my office.”

The store’s duty-free sales from April to October are up about 20 percent from pre-pandemic levels, according to Kazuhiko Asakawa, the store’s manager. Shelves containing 7,000 to 8,000 items include iron teapots, ceramics and other handmade goods. “We see more travelers from places like Mexico, Brazil and Poland from late 2022,” he said.

Chinese tourists now make up about 10 percent of total visitors, up from 30 percent in 2019, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. Passengers from the US, Canada, Germany and other countries have meanwhile increased.

Some product categories are booming thanks to the changing demographics of tourism. Ito-ya Ltd, which runs a popular store in Ginza that sells pens, notebooks and other office supplies, has seen duty-free sales more than double from before the pandemic. Many customers discover the store through social media, according to manager Atsushi Fujiki. “We seem to be becoming a destination,” he said.

Sinduja Venkat, who was recently visiting from India with her family, was among the shoppers at Ito-ya browsing pens, sketchbooks and other products. “I want to buy stationery for my children to use at school,” she said.

Despite growth in tourist consumption in Japan, the country still lags behind others in the region when it comes to total spending per visitor, which stands at $2,411 in 2022, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. This compares with $5,524 per tourist in Hong Kong and $6,526 in Australia, which topped the list.

“Japan is losing ground to other countries when it comes to entertainment and services,” said Noriko Yagasaki, a professor at Tokyo Women’s Christian University. There is a lack of guides to accompany tourists, with demand outstripping labor supply, she said.

Visitor spending can be increased by focusing not only on selling merchandise, but also on providing experiences, Yagasaki said.

Even if spending remains low, there is also the view that more tourists will help boost economic activity anyway. But this is also difficult given the labor shortage in the industry. Japan’s inn and hotel sector reported the highest level of staff shortages, according to an October survey by Teikoku Databank.

“Although the number of visitors is important, it can become unmanageable,” Yagasaki said. “We need to focus on improving the quality of services in the coming years.”

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