The number of South Korean visitors to Japan tumbled 48.0 percent in August from a year earlier to 308,700 amid escalating tensions between the two neighbors over wartime history and trade policy, government data showed Wednesday.
The estimated number of foreign visitors fell 2.2 percent to 2,520,100 in the reporting month, down for the first time since September last year when a powerful typhoon hit western Japan and a major earthquake rocked Hokkaido, the Japan Tourism Agency said.
While the Japanese government aims to attract 40 million foreign visitors by next year, when the country hosts the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, the target has been overshadowed by the deterioration in Tokyo-Seoul ties, which has prompted some airlines to suspend services connecting the two countries.
Despite the sharp drop in South Korean visitors to Japan, the number of Japanese visitors to South Korea increased 19.2 percent in July from a year earlier to 274,830, according to the Korea Tourism Organization, comprising the second-largest group of foreign visitors after China.
South Korea accounted for 24 percent of overall foreign tourists to Japan last year, ranking second in total number and spending after China.
By country and region in August, China topped the list at 1,000,600, up 16.3 percent, with Taiwan rising to second place at 420,300, up 6.5 percent.
South Korea dropped to third from second, with Hong Kong fourth at 190,300, down 4.0 percent, according to the agency.
The total number of foreign visitors between January and August rose 3.9 percent to a record 22,144,900, it said.
Tensions between Tokyo and Seoul worsened after South Korean court rulings last year ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation for wartime labor.
Citing security concerns, Japan in July tightened export controls on South Korea, and Seoul, which saw the move as retaliation for the court decisions, decided in August to terminate a military intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo.
South Korea, in a tit-for-tat move, revoked Japan's preferential trade partner status starting Wednesday, citing displeasure with the neighboring country's export control regime.
In Okinawa Prefecture, where 25 percent of foreign guests were from South Korea last year, the number of regular flights connecting Naha Airport in the prefecture and South Korea is expected to shrink to some 30 a week this month from around 70 in July, according to the prefecture.
As hotels are expected to take a blow, the prefecture plans to hold a business meeting with South Korean travel agencies later this month in Seoul to attract tours to Okinawa, prefectural officials said.
"Although it's a difficult time due to the deteriorating ties, we're determined to do what we can do for now," a prefectural official said. "We can't just sit and wait."
Meanwhile, the Nagasaki prefectural government has started accepting applications for emergency lending to assist small and midsize companies which are seeing sales falls.
In Aomori Prefecture in northeastern Japan, which aims to attract tourists for skiing and hot springs ahead of the winter season, the occupancy rate for flights connecting Aomori and Seoul declined by 24 points in August from a year earlier to 62 percent.
"It's a very severe situation to maintain the air route," said Aomori Gov. Shingo Mimura at a press conference earlier this month, adding that the prefecture aims to draw visitors from Thailand and China via Seoul.