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Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012

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High-seas luxury: The Costa Victoria has been brought in by the Italian-based company Costa Crociere S.p.A. for scheduled cruises between China and Japan. OVERSEAS TRAVEL AGENCY CO.

Kyushu sees more cruise ship arrivals

Staff writer

The Great East Japan Earthquake left in its wake, besides billions of yen worth of damage and thousands of dead and missing, a host of problems for the tourism industry.

But now, 18 months later, the resulting dropoff is showing signs of turning around and the number of foreign visitors this year has increased dramatically from 2011.

Among regions, Kyushu has shown particularly prominent growth.

Since the tracking of foreign visitor numbers began there in 2007, a record number of foreign visitors arrived between March and July this year. One of the main factors appears to be large cruise ships bringing in hundreds of Chinese tourists to the region's main ports, including Hakata in Fukuoka Prefecture and Nagasaki.

Recently, cruises have become a popular means of travel among well-to-do Chinese.

Although there were some cancellations in September and October due to the rising tensions over the Senkaku Islands issue, people in the tourism industry say the cruise market is likely to grow further in the coming years as Western cruise lines woo the growing Chinese market, mainly targeting middle-class consumers who want to travel abroad on reasonably priced tours and cruises.

Many cruise ship visitors to Kyushu are from China and take tours that leave Shanghai to South Korea and Japan and then go back to China, said Hiroyuki Yoshida, a director of tourism promotion in the city of Fukuoka.

"The Chinese cruise ship tour market is growing, as European and U.S. lines have recently been actively promoting such tours," he said. "They have increased the number of ships and started utilizing bigger cruise ships in Asia."

For instance, Costa Crociere S.p.A, a line based in Italy, last year used a vessel that can accommodate about 1,700 people. However, with increased demand, this year Costa introduced its Costa Victoria liner to the Asian market. Like a huge floating hotel, it has room for 2,400 passengers.

One of Costa's vessels, the Costa Concordia, was involved in an accident in January when it hit a reef off the Italian coast. Thirty people aboard perished.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., a U.S.-based line, also introduced a larger vessel this year. Named the Voyager of the Seas, it can accommodate more than 3,000 people.

Kyushu is expected to welcome around 220 cruise ships this year. This number compares with just 55 in 2011 and 152 in 2010. Cruise ship tours are concentrated between March and October.

Hakata port alone registered the arrival of about 20 fewer cruise ships carrying Chinese tourists between this March and October compared with the 61 that docked during the same period in 2010. However, despite fewer ships docking, officials say the number of visitors is estimated to have increased due to bigger ships being used by cruise lines.

With the explosive growth of the cruise market in China, Kyushu has become a popular destination due to its geographical position, Yoshida said.

He explained that a popular four- or five-day cruise begins in Shanghai, moves to South Korea and then on to ports in Kyushu, such as Hakata and Nagasaki.

According to the Justice Ministry, the number of foreign visitors to Kyushu between March and July this year set records every month.

The region logged 115,558 foreign visitors in July, up 100.4 percent from 2011 and 25.1 percent from 2010.

As for the overall number of foreigners visiting Japan, the country received about 6.3 million foreign visitors between January and September, according to Japan National Tourism Organization.

In 2011 the number was about 4.5 million and in 2010 it was about 6.6 million.

Despite the general image of cruise tours as luxurious and expensive, many tours from China to Japan are cheaper than traveling by air, according to people in the industry.

"These cruise ship tours actually fall into the category of casual tours rather than superluxurious. But the tours provide really good service," said Yoshida.

The cruises cost about $100 per day, and travelers can enjoy a variety of facilities such as casinos, swimming pools and hot tubs, while there are also buffet and full-course meals.

"Given that customers can enjoy such entertainment and food, the tours are good deals for their prices," said Kengo Kuno, general manager of the cruise department at Overseas Travel Agency Co. in Tokyo.

However, despite a general increase in the number of cruise ships and passengers arriving in Japan, the market between Japan and China has recently been falling off due in part to the Senkaku conflict.

In September and October, Hakata port reported that seven cruise ships from China had canceled their planned port calls. Yoshida, the Fukuoka tourism official, added that one cruise ship canceled because of a typhoon.

Considering the current situation, the short-term impact needs to be carefully monitored, people in the industry said. But if the cruise market can remain unaffected by the troubled diplomatic ties, "cruise operators are basically thinking that the market can grow bigger and bigger," said Kuno.

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