TOKYO â€" High-tech toilet seats, diapers, cold medicine, rice cookers: These are some of the hottest items for a Chinese tourist on a shopping spree in Japan. The Japanese call this Bakugai or "explosive buying," and associate it with the Chinese travelers' impressive purchasing power. Bakugai even became 2015's Japanese Word of the Year.
As data from the National Tourism Organization shows, Chinese people comprised Japan's largest tourist group last year, followed by South Koreans and Taiwanese. The growing presence of Chinese travelers has raised mixed emotions among the Japanese public, even those in the tourist industry who would be bound to profit from the phenomenon.
Complaints range from Japanese business travelers who suddenly find it difficult to book hotel rooms in certain Japanese cities, to broader gripes about the "etiquette," or lack of it, among Chinese tourists. Chinese travelers have a reputation for cutting lines, being noisy and littering. Local governments in cities that are popular with Chinese tourists have taken measures, such as putting up posters in Chinese to remind them of the code of behavior.
Still, in my opinion, the real challenge concerning Chinese tourists has entered the next phase: how to deal with the effects of scale.
Undoubtedly, even though some Japanese exhibit resentment towards the Chinese tourists, the economic opportunity brought by their visits and explosive buying habits have "rebalanced" their feeling.
Mr. Inoue, who had been driving taxis in Tokyo for 30 years, says he likes picking up Chinese clients. "They'll take a taxi from Tokyo all the way to Haneda Airport, or even Narita Airport, which is further out," he says. "Japanese clients rarely do this."
Even if Chinese spending has dropped significantly since the country's economy has slowed, they still make up the largest consumer group in Japan during their tours, spending on average about $1,500, for a total of $3.83 billion in 2014.
Links to South China Sea
The opportunity that an ever more powerful China offers comes in the context of the Sino-Japan relationship. Japanese people, in general, believe that China has expansionist territorial ambitions, in its South China Sea strategy, for example. There is also the "One Belt, One Road" infrastructure trade initiative, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Ordinary Japanese and business leaders alike are alarmed by these moves, and this mindset winds up influencing their perception of Chinese tourists.
To better understand how Japanese people view Chinese tourists, I paid particularly close attention everywhere I went in Japan, when I went back home during the two weeks of the recent Chinese New Year.
One afternoon, I went to Tokyo's famous Akihabara district, nicknamed "Electronics Town," where everything basically revolves around the Chinese tourists who are busy with their "explosive buying."
Tokyo's Akihabara Station â€" Photo: Brancacube
On the way there, several posters in Chinese remind tourists that they can use their UnionPay cards to draw cash at Family Mart. As far as I remembered, I had never seen such services and advertisements in Japan before.
Exiting the Akihabara Station, I immediately heard Chinese broadcast ads coming from Yamada Electric, a chain specializing in various electrical appliances. Two employees cheerfully held up signs introducing, in Chinese, brands with preferential prices, and ushering in clients who were virtually all Chinese tourists. It quickly felt like I was back in China.
I walked over to two Japanese boys near the shop, with puzzled expressions on their faces. "What do you think of this?" I asked. "I'd come here to buy some batteries," said one. "But with all these Chinese, it's going to take time." The other added, "We don't normally come here anymore."
The second floor of the five-story Yamada Electric compound specializes in duty-free services, where nearly all clients and half the clerks are Chinese. Again, posters promote the services of Alipay, a third-party online payment platform with no transaction fees. "It's like shopping back at home," one female shopper says with delight.
Chinese tourists have by now grown accustomed to the fact that they are able to shop in their own language, among their own countrymen. This can only happen thanks to China's scale effect, of both emigration and trade.
I overheard one particular conversation between a Chinese client and Chinese clerk at a drugs and cosmetics store. "How long have you lived in Japan? How do you feel about living here? Do the Japanese look down on you? How did you got a Japanese passport?" They had surely just met for the first time, yet neither hesitated to ask blunt questions about otherwise private and sensitive matters.
Suddenly, one term came to my mind: Chinese thinking. Many in Japan know this concept, which refers to Chinese people taught to believe that the world revolves around them.
Akihabara by night â€" Photo: IQRemix
Most Japanese feel that Chinese people still operate with this mentality today. It helps to explain, more or less, the Chinese government's actions in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, as well as "explosive buying."
Why do Japanese people so quickly come to such a conclusion? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that in ancient times, Japan used to present tributes to China. Japanese learn in their history books that under the tributary system Chinese emperors developed a self-centered system to provide protection for bordering countries in return for loyalty. In other words, the Chinese tourists and their money remind Japanese people of the ancient history they learned about at school.
But it was a conversation with a Chinese female staff member at another Tokyo electronics store that may shed even more light. Mrs. Nishiguchi has lived in Japan for over 30 years, a naturalized citizen as her Japanese name shows. And her complaints are reserved for the visitors from her native China, many of whom question her for trying to sell products made in Japan. "These Chinese tourists' level is really appalling," she says. "They make a fuss over everything. To be rich is one thing. To have quality and morality is another. It will take another 50 years for China to be as advanced as Japan."
As a Japanese who deals with Chinese all the time, I fully understand her point of view. And yet, if it had been a Japanese clerk selling Japanese goods, a Chinese tourist probably wouldn't have reacted so impulsively. This is partly because of the language barrier. But even more important is that Chinese people are in general more polite with foreigners.
*The author is the former president of Beijing Universityâ€™s Japanese Association and a renowned critic on Sino-Japan relations.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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