A fortune to be made is what most workers in the travel industry in Asia have in mind when dealing with Japanese tourists. Despite the increase in Japanese backpackers and solo travelers, many in the industry still view holidaymakers from Japan as either rich, clueless shopaholic shutterbugs with a penchant for endless golf or repressed salarymen looking for illicit sex. And, like the fortune tellers at Hsing-tian Temple, Asians have learned that catering to Japanese tastes is far more lucrative than hosting any other group.
Even with Japan's lingering economic malaise, a record number of Japanese travelers 18.4 million, up 4% on 2000 are expected to head abroad this year. A reshuffling of midweek public holidays means an additional eight three-day breaks and many of these will be spent on short package trips elsewhere in Asia. Current favorite destinations are South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Bali and Hong Kong. "Every major hotel has someone assigned to specifically service the Japanese," says a guest relations coordinator at a five-star Bangkok hotel. "They are a very big market."
And a focused one. Most Japanese travelers quickly and dutifully dispense with the sights before heading for the main event shopping. Says tourist guide Hoang Huu Loc in Ho Chi Minh City: "They just want to see, not study."
However brief the visit, the spending orgies are legendary. In Seoul, backstreet stores in Itaewon sell fake designer clothes and accessories exclusively to Japanese groups, often from back rooms hidden behind sliding screens and false walls. "Japanese are big customers," says one shop manager. "They buy a lot." A tour guide waiting outside another clandestine store is candid about his Japanese clients: "There's not much to see in Korea. They're here for the shopping."
While Westerners may be outraged to be charged anything but local prices, Japanese are overjoyed to find costs, however inflated, are still lower than at home. Jonathan Hepfner, assistant editor of the monthly magazine Thailand Indochina Traveller, says: "Most Western tourists would be pretty angry if they were herded into specific shops and pushed to buy things. The Japanese actually demand it." Hard-bargaining nationalities may be banned, even ejected, when the Japanese arrive. Adds the Bangkok guests relations coordinator: "When it comes to cheating, scamming and overcharging, the Japanese really get creamed."
Vacationing Japanese often take advantage of cheaper prices on items other than Gucci scarves and Louis Vuitton bags. Dentists and doctors in Taiwan and Thailand are increasingly on the tourist trail from Tokyo: a round-trip ticket to Taipei and a visit to a dentist many of them U.S.-trained cost less than a lunchtime appointment with a tooth doc at home. Japanese travelers are also increasingly making a beeline for luxury services at bargain prices, like foot massages in Taiwan and herbal steam spas in South Korea.
For Japanese who travel in groups, tours tend to be rigidly organized. Says Hepfner: "The tour guide tells them when to take pictures and where." Planning even extends to sex. In Bangkok, tours will split: women go on to still more shops, while men head off for a "massage" in Thaniya Road, a nighttime erotic pleasure zone with clubs catering exclusively to Japanese that is handily located in the central business district. In Seoul's Itaewon, visits to girlie bars are inclusive of transfers: guides drop clients off, wait outside and return them to the hotel.
As profitable as Japanese tourists may prove to local economies, travel experts have a word of warning: since the Japanese travel market moves in concert, when a destination stops being the flavor of the month, disaster can loom. "In 1994, during the French nuclear tests in the Pacific, the Japanese ended all trips to Fiji, even though it was 1,000 miles away," says Pacific Asia Travel Association chief spokeswoman Lyn Hikida. "We advise people not to put all their eggs in one basket."