July 1, 2010 / 9:11 AM / 9 years ago

Japan relaxes visa rules to lure Chinese shoppers

TOKYO, July 1 (Reuters Life!) - Japan relaxed its visa requirements for Chinese tourists on Thursday, hoping to attract more well-heeled travellers from its giant neighbour and cash in on demand for electronics, cosmetics and luxury goods.

With retail sales in a prolonged slump due to its ageing and declining population, Japan is increasingly looking abroad for customers — particularly among Chinese visitors for whom shopping is high on the agenda.

“For Chinese people, going abroad used to be nothing but a dream,” Tang Yinyu, a 27-year-old tourist from Shanghai, told Reuters in the arrival lounge at Narita airport near Tokyo.

“But now Chinese people come to Japan because they’re interested in cosmetics or electronics. They just want to shop.”

The push for Chinese visitors is a part of the government’s broader growth strategy announced last month, which seeks to promote tourism as one source of economic stimulus.

Analysts estimate there are 750,000 millionaires in China, measured in U.S. dollar terms, and the country’s consumers are making a beeline for luxury goods. They rank as the world’s second-largest spenders on luxury after the United States.

The new criteria, which reduce the income level that individuals must prove they have in order to secure a tourist visa, will open up the possibility of individual travel to Japan for around 16 million middle-class Chinese families.

RETAIL BOON

Around 600,000 Chinese tourists visited Japan between January and May, a 36 percent jump from the same period last year, Japan’s National Tourism Organization said.

And thanks to the relaxed visa rules, the number of visitors from China is expected to reach a record 1.5 million this year.

That’s good news for Japan’s retailers, with a report by Daiwa Securities showing that shopping is the only goal for around half of the Chinese tourists who come to Japan.

Chinese shoppers shell out an average 117,000 yen ($1,324) on souvenirs alone, more than double the amount American or European tourists spend, according to Japan’s National Tourism Organization.

Cai Ailian, 25, a sales assistant from mainland China working at Bic Camera (3048.T), a busy electronics store in downtown Tokyo, sees dozens of Chinese tourists each day.

“A lot of the time they’re using their company’s money, or they’re buying presents for friends and family. Money is definitely not an issue for them,” she said.

Cai, who has been working in Japan for six years, is one of five sales assistants who speak Chinese in the store.

Laox, a Japanese electronics retailer controlled by China’s Suning Appliance (002024.SZ), is also trying to capitalise on the expected rise in Chinese tourists.

The retailer, which gets about half of its sales from non-Japanese shoppers, is targeting Chinese tourists who snap up made-in-Japan rice cookers, ceramic cooking knives and high-tech gadgets.

“Many overseas visitors are not coming here as tourists but as shoppers,” Laox CEO Luo Yiwen told Reuters in an interview. [ID:nTOE65L097] (Additional reporting by Craig Aramaki; Editing by Chris Gallagher and Miral Fahmy)

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