So long, high-spending Japanese tourist

FROM the second-hand record shops of London's Camden Town to the wilds of the Scottish Highlands, and from the Champs-Elysees to the luxury hotels of Madrid, the Japanese tourist is looking like an endangered species.

During the long boom years of the Japanese economy, affluent businessmen and their wives from Tokyo and Osaka arrived with empty suitcases to stock up on luxury goods such as cashmere and porcelain between sightseeing in European capitals and fleeting visits to the Lake District, Stratford, York and Bath.

But the fall of the yen and the turmoil in the Japanese economy has seen the number of Japanese visitors to Britain slide. They were ninth in the British Tourist Authority's numerical ranking in 1994 and 1995, twelfth in 1996 and 1997, and are predicted to fall below that this year. Spending by Japanese tourists in this country fell by 18 per cent between 1996 and 1997 to pounds 361m. The BTA predicts a fall of around eight per cent in visitor numbers for 1998.

Once the Japanese nearly all stuck to tour groups, but the early Nineties saw a growing trend towards independent travel, particularly by young followers of fashion and music. These travellers in their twenties and thirties were among the first to disappear when recession hit.

The Japanese are tightening their belts and, according to Robin Young of the BTA, choosing cheaper destinations such as Korea, Indonesia and Hong Kong, which have also taken an economic battering in the last couple of years.

"There is concern in places like Cheltenham, which benefited from being promoted as a 'snapshot of old England'," he said. "But Britain is still doing better than the rest of Europe because of the variety of our culture and its image among the Japanese as a fashionable and sophisticated place to visit."

In Madrid, hotel operators have detected a decline in Japanese tour groups this year In Paris, Japanese spending in the chic boutiques of the rue de Rivoli is also down.

Traders in London's Camden Town say the drop off in Japanese trade has wiped between 10 and 20 per cent of their takings this year. "They used to go through the shop very quickly, pulling out arms full of records and paying out hundreds of pounds in travellers' cheques," said Neil Baylis, of The Singles Bar. Now, he laments, the Japanese have become browsers and will spend hours choosing which record to buy.

Similarly, clothes specialists who cashed in on the Japanese love affair with vintage Levis are now either hoarding their stock or selling it for less.

"They used to be my best customers," said Franco Nejad of USA Classics. "They always went for the best quality, the older the better, and they never asked about the price. They would shell out pounds 600 to pounds 800 for jeans with special stitching without even thinking about it. But over the last year they have started asking which jeans are cheap."

Haworth in West Yorkshire, home of the Brontes, has always been popular with the Japanese. Carolyn Spencer, of Bronte Country Tourism, says Japanese women identify strongly with the Brontes as "repressed women who were ahead of their time" and treat the Parsonage Museum "like a shrine".

However she is concerned that the lag between booking and tours may translate into a drop in numbers next year.

In Liverpool, around 30,000 Japanese visitors a year visit The Beatles Story museum. Spokeswoman Sheilagh Johnston said there has been an increase in mail orders for merchandise, and suspects this may be an indication of more people staying at home. "The Japanese market is a worry. We started to notice the downturn in Easter of this year," she said.

British Airways recently suspended flights between London and Osaka because of "worsening passenger demand and the continuing fall in the value of the Japanese yen".

Where once it was almost de rigueur for Japanese office ladies and newlyweds to stock up on luxury goods at European department stores, the strong pound now makes this less of a free-for-all spending spree. Selfridges has seen the number of Japanese, Korean, Thai and Indonesian customers fall from the top to the bottom of the store's visitors' league.

Waterford Wedgwood, the luxury china and glass group, has blamed the decline in Japanese tourists for a 12 per cent fall in pre-tax profits.

Although the number of Japanese visiting Scotland is down, Alastair McIntosh of the Scottish Whisky Heritage Centre in Edinburgh says spirit sales are buoyant and identifies a move towards "higher income and more discerning customers who buy expensive and unusual brands".

Perhaps it is simply that the Japanese, who identify strongly with Scotland's landscape and heritage as well as having a fascination for the Loch Ness monster, feel that their favourite tipple is the last thing they are going to give up.

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