For centuries, Japan’s relationship with the outside world was limited by a strict policy of isolationism, with the vast majority of its ports closed to foreign trade and very few outsiders permitted to set foot on Japanese soil. This closed period (‘Sakoku’) lasted from the early 17th century to the middle of the 19th century, when American Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition opened the country up to trade and diplomacy with the US and other Western nations.

Japan’s isolationist period might have ended in 1854, but the legacy of Sakoku stretches to the modern day. A clear example is the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism’s (MLIT) strict management of visiting foreign yachts calling at Japanese ports.

Of the approximately 3,500 ports in Japan, only 130 do not require prior permission to enter. To enter closed ports, foreign vessel owners have been required to fill out complex paperwork in advance, listing all closed ports that they may wish to visit, with regular updates required. Failure to abide by these regulations carried stern penalties, including up to two years imprisonment, confiscation of the offending vessel and a million-yen ($8,848) fine.

However, effective as of 7 May this year, this stringent rule has been relaxed. Under the new system, foreign pleasure cruisers can fill out a single, one-page form to apply for a free permit that will allow entry into any and all closed ports, without the need for renewals.

“Does this mean Japan could now be on the short list for one of the best cruising grounds in the world?” enthused Sue Richards in a May article for yachting website

This more open and friendly reception for yachters is a microcosm of the incredible tourism growth in Japanese ports more widely. A booming Chinese middle-class and strong sightseeing draws have helped Japan’s cruise sector reach new heights, and the country has become Asia’s premier cruise destination. How has this growth manifested, and what are the implications for Japan’s most popular ports, many of which are struggling to expand capacity fast enough to meet demand?

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Rampant growth for Japanese cruise visits

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has an official target to increase the number of tourists who visit Japan by cruise ship to five million by 2020, when Tokyo will play host to the 2020 Summer Olympics. Looking at the impressive growth of cruise passenger numbers in the country, it looks on course to meet this ambitious goal.

According to data from the Cruise Lines International Association’s (CLIA) Asia Cruise Trends report for 2017, Japan’s ports welcomed 2,378 calls from cruise ships last year, a third of all port calls in Asia, placing the country head-and-shoulders above any other competitor on the continent as a cruise destination.

The industry’s growth is as impressive as expected for a nation that has established such a dominant position in the market. CLIA figures put the absolute growth of Japanese cruise port calls since 2013 at 622%, with a combined annual growth rate of 64%, driven by strong performance at key ports such as Fukuoka’s Hakata Port, Nagasaki, Yokohama Port on Tokyo Bay and Naha in Okinawa Prefecture.

Nearly two million tourists arrived at Japanese ports by cruise ship in 2016, and cruise arrivals to the island of Kyushu – the second-smallest island of the Japanese archipelago and the most popular destination for foreign cruise vessels – outnumbered those arriving on the island by airport. With positive signs like these, the government-set five million target is looking more achievable by the day.

Major international cruise brands such as Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Princess and Costa Cruises have established routes in Japanese waters, as well as domestic Japanese cruise firms including Mitsui OSK Lines, Asuka and Venus Cruise.

Chinese shoppers are heading to Japan

Across the Sea of Japan, China is rapidly finding its feet as a cruise destination in its own right. Port calls have been growing fast, up from 850 in 2016 to 1,156 last year, but the country, for now, is still far behind Japan as a cruise destination. Nevertheless, China has played a decisive role in the growth of the Japanese cruise sector as a source of immense demand.

With a massive population and a growing appetite for cruise holidays, it’s little surprise that China would be well represented among Asian cruise passengers, but the disparity in passenger volumes is still eye-opening. According to CLIA, of the 3.1 million cruise passengers from Asia in 2016, 2.1 million originated in mainland China, more than twice the number from the rest of Asia put together. That gulf is likely to get wider in coming years, with passenger volume growing at a staggering compound annual growth rate of 76% since 2012.

China’s close proximity to Japan, among other factors, has funnelled a large proportion of Chinese passenger volumes to the Japanese archipelago, particularly Kyushu. While cruise holidays to Japan may have previously been the preserve of China’s financial elite, the rapid growth of the middle classes has opened up this travel mode to an exponentially larger swathe of the country’s population, and the swarms of Chinese tourists have one thing foremost in their minds – retail therapy.

Japan’s reputation for premium products – particularly electronics, but other categories as well – has made it extremely attractive to discerning Chinese shoppers who may have quality concerns about equivalent Chinese-made goods. And the lack of space constraints on a cruise holiday means tourists can buy as much as they can stuff into their onboard cabins. These factors, not to mention a Chinese culture that generally puts emphasis on gift-giving, make for a powerful combination. The trend of Chinese shopping sprees is so pronounced that the Japanese have coined a word to describe it – ‘bakugai’, which translates to ‘explosive buying’.

“Ships allow me to travel with lots of luggage,” Chinese tourist Zhu Xiang told the Japan Times at Nagasaki Port in 2016. “I can hand these [cosmetics] out to my friends.”

The cruise sector has been quick to offer a number of alternative transport combinations to cater to this demand, including a fly-and-cruise service at Yokohama Port, which allows passengers to land at Tokyo Haneda Airport before continuing their journey by cruise liner from Yokohama, and, since 2016, an ‘inter-porting’ scheme that links ports in Kyoto and Ishikawa prefectures, as well as the Port of Busan in South Korea, allowing passengers to begin or end their journeys at any port.

Expanding cruise capacity at Japan’s heaving port cities

The strength of Japan’s cruise tourist influx seems to have caught the country by surprise in some regards, with one unnamed Kyushu Regional Development Bureau exclaiming to the Japan Times earlier this year, “How come there was such a sharp rise?”

Indeed, it continues to be a struggle for major ports to accommodate the throngs of tourists that are cruising in. Capacity and infrastructure issues abound; in 2016 Naha Port in Okinawa was forced to turn away nearly 50 vessels seeking to dock the following year due to a lack of berthing space. The ballooning size of cruise vessels is also becoming an issue, with the largest cruise ships – up to 350m long and 16 stories tall – unable to dock directly at passenger terminals in Yokohama, Tokyo, Osaka and elsewhere because of obstructing harbour bridges.

Numerous upgrade works are ongoing at Japanese cruise ports to increase capacity. In early 2017, MLIT announced its intention to build new piers and passenger terminals at six key ports: Yokohama, Shimizu, Sasebo, Yatsushiro, Motobu and Miyakojima. The government aims to minimise its own financial exposure to these works by offering priority docking access to cruise companies that contribute to the facilities’ development, with Royal Caribbean and NYK Cruises announced as early participants.

In March this year, Carnival signed a long-term strategic agreement with Sasebo Port in Nagasaki Prefecture to build a new passenger terminal at the port, in exchange for full berthing preference.

“Through our long-term investment in the port of Sasebo, and hopefully additional Japanese ports, we hope to facilitate the rising demand for travel in this important region, allowing even more people from around the world to discover the beauty of Japan,” said Mario Zanetti, president of Carnival subsidiary Costa Group Asia. “With the world-class travel infrastructure available in many Japanese cities, we also believe that there is significant potential in collaborating with the government to develop certain Japanese ports into turnaround ports to promote more fly-and-cruise packages out of Japan. This will expand cruise tourism in Japan by enabling the region to become a key cruise hub in Asia for global travellers.”

Strong backing from the cruise industry and impressive market growth across Asia – the absolute volume of cruise travellers across Asia has quadrupled since 2012, according to CLIA – bodes well for the longevity of Japan’s cruise sector. The sector is likely to become even more of an economic engine in the coming decades, but with Japanese port infrastructure creaking under the strain of demand, the country will have to attract investment, work with cruise operators and ensure that economic benefits and tourism-associated burdens are distributed equitably in local cruise hot-spots to make sure it doesn’t become a victim of its own success.