Japan welcomed more than 2 million international visitors for a fourth consecutive month in September, official data showed on Wednesday, marking a near full recovery to pre-pandemic levels even though the Chinese market has been slow to rebound.
The number of foreign visitors for business and leisure was 2.18 million last month, data from the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) showed, up slightly from 2.16 million in August.
Visitor numbers improved to 96.1% of levels seen in 2019 before the outbreak of COVID-19 led to travel curbs around the world.
Japan ended some of the world's strictest COVID-19 border restrictions a year ago when it resumed visa-free travel for many countries, and went on to scrap all remaining controls in May.
Arrivals have maintained a rapid recovery pace, peaking at 2.32 million in July, as airlines added more international flights and the yen's slide to a near 33-year low made Japan a bargain destination.
"With inflation in the United States, everything is outrageously expensive, and coming here, it's a lot cheaper," John Hardisty, a 48-year-old engineer from Hawaii, said during a recent shopping trip in Tokyo. "It's like a night and day difference."
The number of visitors arriving from 15 markets, including the United States, South Korea and Singapore, reached record levels for the month of September, the JNTO said. Travellers from Mexico were a record for any month.
The strong demand from those markets is helping to compensate for figures from mainland China that are still 60% below 2019, when Chinese accounted for nearly a third of all visitors and 40% of all tourist spending in Japan.
Chinese arrivals were down slightly from August when Beijing lifted restrictions on group travel to Japan. Diplomatic relations have soured following Japan's decision to release treated water from its stricken Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean.
The treated water issue appears to be weighing on Chinese tourism demand, but "the trend towards recovery is likely to remain unchanged," Sompo Institute Plus economist Masato Koike said in a note.
More than 17 million visitors have arrived in Japan in the first nine months of 2023, JNTO data showed, still far from the record of about 32 million in 2019.