Japan Really Should Charge Tourists Four Times More

The swarm of visitors to a Japanese castle has prompted one city to suggest higher prices for foreigners — much higher. 

Bloomberg
Updated1 Jul 2024, 02:37 AM IST
Japan Really Should Charge Tourists Four Times More
Japan Really Should Charge Tourists Four Times More

Step out of the train station at Himeji, a mid-sized Japanese city about 80 kilometers from Osaka, and one thing grabs the eye. 

Himeji Castle, a centuries-old fortress once home to the great Japanese unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi, is the best surviving example of such structures from the Warring States era, many of which were destroyed in air raids during World War II. In 1993, it became Japan’s first World Heritage site; for readers of a different generation, it might be better known as the location of Tiger Tanaka’s training school in the 1967 James Bond movie You Only Live Twice. 

Recently, it’s grabbed attention for a different reason. Hideyasu Kiyomoto, the mayor of the city of half a million, generated international headlines last month when he suggested that foreign tourists ought to pay more — about four times more — than the ¥1,000 the castle currently charges for admission. 

Under a dual-pricing plan, Kiyomoto suggested city residents might pay even less than now. His office told me that since many World Heritage sites charge more than the castle, discussions were ongoing over the appropriate price for tourists and locals, but that no decision had yet been made. The reality is that the costs of maintaining the castle, which miraculously survived the war thanks to being painted black to disguise it from air raids, are undoubtedly rising. 

The debate comes at a time when Japan is grasping for solutions to a problem of its own making. Less than two years after the borders were reopened post-Covid, the country is struggling to cope with the flood of overseas tourists. Visitors are commandeering buses in Kyoto, crowding out convenience stores near Mt. Fuji, and generally being blamed for nuisances everywhere they go. Tourism has exploded over the past decade, and the recent weak yen has taken the trend to extremes. Some restaurants are also exploring ways to charge foreigners more, with many citing the cost of dealing with customers in other languages and adjusting menus.

Tourist spending is set to soar to ¥7.2 trillion this year, making it Japan’s second-largest export after cars, adding more to the economy than steel or semiconductor parts. Yet many people in places like Himeji don’t feel rich. And when I arrived off an early evening Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo, I couldn’t immediately see much sign of foreign spending, either. 

It didn’t take me long to find out why. Everywhere I went, I heard the same thing: Throngs of foreign tourists arrive during the day, but few stay overnight. Visitors prefer to return to Osaka , or further west to Hiroshima, the next major port of call. Because no one hangs around, there are no luxury hotels and none being built. I myself was staying just one night, and was due the following evening in Osaka, where the nightlife is considerably livelier. 

That’s one reason that, to my surprise, all the Himeji locals I spoke to favored the mayor’s dual-pricing scheme. Hayato Miyazaki, who runs a local brewery and taproom, told me he fully supported such a system, as did everyone he knew in the restaurant business. He gets one or two groups of foreign tourists a day, he said, but shuts up shop at 10 p.m. 

When I put it to him that a dual-pricing structure felt like Japan was slipping back into being a developing country, he nodded in understanding, but protested: “It’s too late for that!” Having lived in the US and Australia, he’s familiar with how much Japanese wages have stagnated by comparison. 

Himeji’s mayor is certainly correct to note that many World Heritage sites overseas also charge much more. London’s Tower Bridge, for example, costs the equivalent of $17 for a basic ticket, nearly three times what Himeji Castle asks. 

Two-tier pricing isn’t necessarily a feature of developing nations, where the practice is more widespread at tourist spots because of the vast gap between local salaries and what visitors can afford. The Louvre museum in Paris, which is included in a broader World Heritage encompassing the Banks of the Seine, offers tickets free to under-25s — but only if they’re residents of the European Economic Area. In Hawaii, locals are entitled to a “Kama’aina” discount for residents. The National Gallery in Singapore proudly proclaims free access for locals and permanent residents; visitors are charged the equivalent of $15. 

Himeji residents told me of the Donguri Card, or Acorn Card, a seemingly beloved local scheme that allows kids up to junior high free entry to museums, aquariums and other local attractions. What would be the difference, they contended, if that was extended to adults? As it happens, Japan’s government has been looking for ways to promote the My Number Card, an oft-troubled national ID scheme that for practical reasons policymakers want everyone to have. Flash a My Number Card and get a discount, or receive payment back in the form of points. 

What’s needed here, with respect to Mayor Kiyomoto, is top-down guidance from Tokyo in the form of guidelines and best practices. There’s a way to charge tourists more, but a municipality-by-municipality scattershot approach isn’t it. If the country can make clear who pays what, and how, there will likely be few objections. Himeji Castle is easily worth four times the cost. 

More From Bloomberg Opinion: 

If your knowledge of Japanese history comes from Shogun, the Taiko is his fictional counterpart.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, spending by foreign visitors is counted as an export in GDP statistics.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia, and was the Tokyo deputy bureau chief.

/opinion

This article was generated from an automated news agency feed without modifications to text.

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First Published:1 Jul 2024, 02:37 AM IST
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