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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - For a long time, Japan was seen as an expensive travel destination, largely inaccessible due to the language barrier, with Mount Fuji and Geisha girls the main attractions.
But Japan is now keen to attract tourists, with the government seeking foreign visitors as a potentially lucrative market to help shore up the domestic tourism industry and revitalize its flagging economy amid rapidly aging population.
And industry analysts believe getting a bigger share of Chinese tourists is key, given the country's booming economy and growing ranks of newly rich with lots of disposable income and the desire to travel and spend on luxury goods.
A 2003 government initiative advocated attracting 10 million foreign tourists a year, and their cash, by 2010. As part of this scheme, the government launched its "Visit Japan Campaign" globally, and the Tourism Agency opened on October 1st this year.
Such efforts have paid off. In 2007, a record 8.4 million foreign tourists visited Japan, up about 14 percent from the previous year, according to the government-affiliated Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO).
"At this pace of increase, we think we can achieve the 10 million target," said Kazuhiko Kanazashi, a Japan Tourism Agency official.
Stronger currencies against yen, along with years of flat or slipping prices in Japan, mean the country is not as expensive for many to visit as it once was.
This has been a boon for Asians, including visitors from China. Official figures show Asian visitors accounted for 73 percent of total visitors to Japan last year.
"I think Japan is worth visiting," said Peter Pi, a 30-year-old from Beijing, near the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo. "It is my first time here. I like Japanese food and beautiful scenery, and want to know about Japanese culture."
For Asian tourists, shopping is also high on the to-do list.
"Chinese tourists often buy digital and video cameras, but some go for expensive watches," said Yuji Imai of Yodobashi Camera Co Ltd, an electronics and appliances chain in Tokyo.
To respond to the growing appetite of affluent Chinese tourists, department stores and shops are beginning to accept a Chinese debit card called China Unionpay (CUP). As of July this year, 11,600 shops are CUP registered members nationwide.
For Japan, more foreign tourists mean more spending, but several obstacles remain to attracting them.
The lack of a 24-hour airport near Tokyo poses a big challenge. Despite government plans to expand international flight capacity at Narita and Haneda airports by 2010, Japan will still trail behind rival Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea.
Also, friendlier ties with China are necessary. Despite a gradual thaw in Japan-China relations, visa requirements for Chinese tourists have yet to be relaxed.
Chinese citizens are not allowed to travel to Japan individually and have to be supervised by a tour conductor and a Japanese tour guide, who keep a close eye on the numbers.
"To attract 20 million tourists by 2020, we need to get Asian tourists, particularly Chinese people. But Japan does not have a system in place to accept them in terms of visa and language problems," said the tourism agency's Kanazashi.
President of Japan's largest travel agency JTB Corp, Hiromi Tagawa, also believes ordinary Japanese must get involved in the tourism drive, adding that true hospitality comes only when local people are ready to embrace visitors from abroad.
"It is rather difficult if the government alone is tackling this issue," he said.
"Travel is about interacting with people. Successful cases show local residents actively join in welcoming tourists."
Editing by Miral Fahmy