Revival of regional airports supports Japan’s tourism



Ibaraki Airport turns profitable


The number of foreign tourists visiting Japan has been increasing at a marvelous rate in excess of 20% each year since 2009 except 2011, when it was affected by the devastating earthquake damage in the Tohoku region. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization (TNTO), a government agency, the number rose to a record 10.36 million in 2013 from about 6.89 million in 2009. The number further grew to an estimated 13,414,000 in 2014, eclipsing the previous year’s record.

日本を訪れる外国人観光客の数は2009年以降、東日本大震災の影響があった11年を除くと、毎年20%以上の驚異的な伸びを記録している。日本政府観光局(JNTO)の統計によると、09年に約689万人だった訪日外客数は13年に過去最高の1036万人を記録、さらに、2014年には推定1341万4 千人に達し、前年の記録を大きく上回った。

Officials engaged in the tourist business, while welcoming the strong growth, are beginning to get concerned about problems it may pose in the future. In tandem with the economic growth in China and other Asian countries, the number of visitors to Japan is expected to keep increasing over the coming years. However, those officials are worried that preparations to accept them may not be adequate enough. Their biggest concern is about an insufficient number of airline routes to Japan. They find it too few to accommodate the rapidly growing number of visitors.


International airports already jam-packed


The Japanese government plans to build more runways at the Narita and Haneda international airports to boost their combined annual departure and arrival slots to 744,000. However, some people say that the number will fail to meet the demand as early as in 2022. According to a survey by Tokyu Agency, a major ad agent, about 60% of international airline passengers already use the Narita and Haneda airports. Given the noise problems, it will be too much to expect the two airports to continue to play the role of "gateway to Japan".


The government and tourism industry have been trying to encourage international airlines to shift to regional airports from Narita and Haneda so that more foreign visitors can be readily accepted. This means that regional airports are required to assume an increasingly important role. Actually, however, few of them have so far been quite successful. The Ibaraki Airport, located in the city of Omitama, is one of exceptional examples. It promoted its “IN and OUT of Regional Airport” campaign, doubling the number of users from 200,000 in 2010 to 400,000 in 2012. It encouraged foreign visitors to enter Japan via regional airports instead of the Haneda, Narita or Kansai international airport in the metropolitan areas. Before that campaign, Ibaraki had been one of the country’s typical loss-making regional airports. However, it has successfully turned itself around after China’s Spring Airlines inaugurated its Shanghai flight in July 2010.


Foreign tourists rapidly increasing ahead of Tokyo Olympics


Several factors combined to lead the Ibaraki Airport to its success. One of them is the low landing fee it charges. The landing fee for international fights is about \430,000 at Haneda and about \300,000 at Narita. It is much lower at Ibaraki. This has obviously helped Spring Airlines set its minimum Shanghai-Ibaraki fare at \5,000. By using the Y500 shuttle bus service from Ibaraki to JR Tokyo Station, a tourist can travel from Shanghai to Tokyo for \6,020, even including the \520 airport fee.


The example set by Ibaraki does not simply imply that regional airports can complement the metropolitan airports. Tourists arriving at regional airports can have chances to sightsee and enjoy the charms each region has. In fact, the users of Ibaraki Airport routinely visit the nearby Ushiku Daibutsu, a 100-meter-high bronze statue of Buddha, and Hitachi Seaside Park.


Many regional airports in Japan are still in deficit operation. Few of them have been successful in accepting international fights. Ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, however, foreign visitors to Japan will keep growing in number. Can Japan fully prepare itself to accept them at the time? Much will depend on the revival of regional airports along with whether the Abe administration will succeed in its “regional revitalization" policy.


(Written by: Hayato Murai)