The Profound Impact of COVID-19 on the Japanese Tourism, with Numbers

New data reveal how the pandemic has hit the Japanese travel industry

This article shows how to:

1. Download the newest tourism data from official databases in Japan.

2. Use Pandas and Facebook Prophet to analyze the data.

3. Show the impact of COVID-19 on the hotel industry, foreign visitors and household spending.

As I browsed the photos from my last Japanese trip in January 2020, a photo stood out: a naturally occurring, corona-shaped cloud covered Mount Fuji (Figure 1.). In retrospect, its symbolism hits home way too close. In fact, the first case of COVID-19 in Japan was confirmed two days earlier. Less than a week later, on 23 January, Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province, China were in lockdown. In March, the Toyko Olympics was postponed and visa for foreign nationals were suspended. Three months after the photo, on 16 April, the state of emergency was declared for the whole country.

Japan is one of the most visited destinations before the pandemic. It is not hard to understand why: the country is blessed with stunning natural landscapes, fascinating flora and fauna, onsen, dazzling cities, rich historic and cultural heritage, delicious food, hospitable residents and excellent infrastructure. It was ranked fourth in the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index in 2019. Then COVID-19 hit. Even though its mortality rate from coronavirus is one of the lowest in the developed world, without doubt, life in Japan has been disrupted. Upon the travel ban, tourism was dealt with another blow when it was announced that the Tokyo Olympics was postponed and it will take place without overseas spectators.

Since the pandemic, the western media hardly report the situation there any more. Travel there is not possible. And a good understanding of the Japanese language is necessary to read their local news or to go through their data portals. Although some Youtube videos have done a great job reporting, they are episodic and do not represent the broader picture.

Just a month ago, the Statistics Bureau of Japan (SBJ) and Japan National Tourism Organization(JNTO) released a series of surveys and reports for 2020. I could not wait to look into the data. In this article, I am going to show my analyses.

1. Download and process data

For this article, I downloaded the following datasets: the accommodation (延べ宿泊者数) and expenditure data from SBJ; the tourism data from JTB Tourism Research & Consulting Co.. These long-term data can provide multifaceted views onto the Japanese socioeconomic well-being. All these datasets cover the year 2020 or later so that they can show us the impact of COVID-19 on this country.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to find data in SBJ sometimes. Firstly, data are scattered among different portals or ministries. Secondly, data access is not uniform. While some data can be requested via API, many others are in xls or pdf formats and some tabular data are even embedded in graphics! Finally, Japanese language is a must. For example, the instructions for API registration and usage are in Japanese only; some data tables contain Japanese values without English translations. For the last reason, I added an extra data processing step and translated all the Japanese terms into English.

Afterward, I used Pandas and Plotly Express to analyze the data. I also used Facebook Prophet to fit and predict some data. My code and the data are hosted in my Github repository here: https://github.com/dgg32/japan_under_corona.

2. Overnight stays

Tourism took the brunt of COVID-19. According to knoema.com, tourism accounted for about 7.5% of the Japanese GDP in 2019. The strict lockdown since the pandemic had a severe negative impact on this industry.

Figure 2. shows the accommodation counts in hotels over the years. A steady upward trend can be observed since 2010. The country usually enjoyed a busy August and celebrated a quieter new year. The “pneumonia of unknown cause” was just a murmur in January but became a national emergency in China in February 2020. The impact was immediate, the amounts of overnight stays fell off a cliff since then and bottomed out in May with a year-over-year (YOY) decline of 84%. Even though the numbers rebounded strongly in the following months, they still just reached the pre-2010 level.

It was estimated that about one million overseas spectators would have come to the Olympics. We are looking at a loss of several million accommodations as the direct result of the delay. But this is relatively small compared to the loss caused by the travel ban. According to Prophet’s prediction, the hotel industry suffered an estimated loss of at least 300 million stays for 2020 even without the delay, that was a loss of at least 27.6 billion dollars.

The accommodations in five of the most visited regions: Hokkaido, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Okinawa all dropped below the one million mark in May. Tokyo was the biggest tourist magnet. This one city alone accounted for over 10% of the total accommodations in Japan every month, as many as those from Osaka and Kyoto combined. The delay of Olympics affected Tokyo the most. Okinawa is the southernmost territory of Japan. Tourism is one of its three main income sources [1]. Its geographic separation from the main islands did not prevent it from a high infection rate [2, 3], and might make the decline in tourism even worse: the YOY decline in May 2020 was 94%, even severer than that of Tokyo.

Ever since the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, foreign visitors have made up a larger and larger part of Japanese tourism. Out of all the hotel stays, less than 2% in April 2011 were booked by overseas visitors. But the ratio kept increasing year after year and eventually peaked in January 2020 (22%). In previous years, a large amount of foreign tourists came and joined the Japanese for the late April hanami, while August was the off-season (Figure 4.). Among all the overseas visitors, the largest groups were from China, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand. However in February 2020, they started canceling hotel reservations en masse (Figure 5.). And the foreigner percentage immediately took a nose dive to a level even lower than that of April 2011. It is noteworthy that the drop in Korean tourists predated COVID. The cause was the anti-Japanese sentiment among the Koreans during the trade dispute in the second half of 2019.

3. Expenditure

After the travel ban, domestic became very much the only form of tourism in Japan. But even the local residents spent less on travel during the pandemic.

Even though the unemployment rate of 2.8% in 2020 was not particularly high compared to the 2000s, Japanese families tightened their monthly total spendings, especially by slashing their travel and restaurant budgets. Affluent urban residents tended to travel and eat outdoors frequently. The four figures above show the travel-related spending of residents in four large cities. Tokyo residents spent 1500 yen per month in 2020 for accommodations, the lowest since the 2008 financial crisis. Residents from Yokohama, Kyoto and Osaka spent less than 1000 yen monthly on accommodations in 2020. Meanwhile, outdoor activities such as package tours and eating out were also reduced. In 2019, Tokyo residents spent over 9% of their money on these activities, but this ratio was reduced to 6% in 2020. Similar trends can be seen in the other three cities (Figure 9.).

Finally, the Japanese residents appeared to spend a larger percentage of their income on food during the pandemic. This percentage is called Engel’s coefficient. According to Wikipedia, an Engel’s coefficient below 30 indicates a wealthy way of living. For the occupants in Osaka, that threshold was exceeded in 2020. Residents in Tokyo and Yokohama have never spent so much on food in a decade. The old capital city Kyoto also witnessed the second-highest Engel’s coefficient since 2017 (Figure 10.).

Conclusion

Although the infection rate in Japan has been low compared to many other countries (39th in terms of total cases and 141st in terms of cases per one million people as of May 1st, 2021), the data above showed that its tourism industry has been hit hard by COVID-19. Accommodations in hotels declined dramatically. Foreign visitors lost entry into the country. The Japanese people cut their budget for outdoor activities and spent more on food. The loss in its tourism can amount to hundreds of billions of dollars and it was felt by people of all walks of life.

Currently, Japan is facing the fourth wave. In fact, the government has declared a third state of emergency with new restrictions imposed in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures. Also, vaccine rollout was slow in Japan. Only 0.8% of its population have been fully vaccinated as of May 1st, 2021, much lower than the world average of 3.4%. No end is in sight yet.

But there is still hope. The Japanese are famous for their strict discipline and personal hygiene. They have a mask culture long before COVID. And the vaccination also shows signs of acceleration as the first batch of Moderna vaccine just arrived on 30 April 2021. The newest information regarding travel to Japan can be found here.

May the day of reopening come soon in Japan.

Certified Neo4j Professional, bioinformatician in DSMZ Germany. I want to learn more about Cloud, machine learning and Japanese.

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