Japanese businesses welcomed China's announcement on Thursday that Japan-bound group tours will resume following a hiatus due to COVID-19, hoping for the return of "bakugai," or "explosive" big-budget shopping by Chinese tourists, but some industries expressed concern about labor shortages.

All Nippon Airways Co. and Japan Airlines Co. said they are considering increasing the number of flights between China and Japan in hopes the resumption of Chinese group tours will boost their profits.

The tours will "increase the number of visitors to Japan and revitalize the economy," said Koji Shibata, president of ANA Holdings Inc., ANA's parent company.

Photo taken on Aug. 10, 2023, shows foreign tourists and others on the Nakamise shopping street running to Sensoji temple in Tokyo's Asakusa district. (Kyodo)

Major department store operator Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd. has prepared for a rise in duty-free shopping, having already increased the number of service counters in their shops since the end of fall last year.

Smaller stores in popular tourist spots, such as Tokyo's Asakusa district, were also heartened by the news.

"There are sure to be people who want to do a lot of shopping after not being able to come for years," said Koji Ojima, 51, who runs a souvenir shop on the Nakamise shopping street running to Senso-ji temple.

"It's not a big store, so I'll have to devise measures to allow more customers," he said.

An official of a tourism organization in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido said expectations are high that the local economy will get a boost, saying Chinese tourists "are known for spending quite a lot."

In western Japan, Toshiyuki Suzuki, who operates a Japanese-style inn near Nara Park, said his business had previously been badly hit by the lack of reservations from Chinese tourists.

Although preventing the spread of COVID-19 and ensuring enough workforce are still challenges, the 70-year-old said "hope for a return to liveliness exceeds" the worries.

Seibu Prince Hotels Worldwide Inc., which operates the Prince Hotel brand, said it hoped the influx of Chinese tourists will lead to higher occupancy rates but remained concerned about labor shortages.

The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the accommodation industry in Japan, causing many employees to quit. A spokesperson said the hotel company would "work on securing people with language skills through various means, including internships."

Despite the optimism across businesses, some experts were skeptical that the resumption of group tours would lead to a surge in Chinese tourists due to the slow recovery of the world's second-largest economy.

Yusaku Nishimura, from the University of International Business and Economics in China, stated that even before the pandemic wreaked havoc, the preferences of Chinese visitors had been shifting from group travel to individual travel and from shopping to unique personal experiences.

The professor, who specializes in the Chinese economy, expressed hope that the resumption of group tours will boost consumption in Japan. However, he noted the impact "may be limited to factors such as the weak yen."

China on Thursday lifted group tour restrictions for Chinese nationals, a measure that had been in place since January 2020.

In February and March, China announced the resumption of overseas group tours for Chinese citizens after a roughly three-year hiatus, but the tours were limited to a total of 60 countries, with Japan excluded from the list.

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