Japan sees record foreign visitors in 2010

Japan saw a record 8.61 million foreign tourists last year due to economic recovery overseas and the resumption of international flights to Tokyo's Haneda airport, a tourist body said Wednesday.

The rise marked a 26.8 percent increase on 2009 levels, the Japan National Tourist Organisation said, despite the growing strength of the yen.

At the same time, the increased purchasing power of the currency contributed to the first increase for four years in the number of Japanese tourists going abroad.

It was the second biggest year-on-year gain in foreign tourists in five decades, following a record 40.4 percent jump in 1970 when the Osaka World Expo was held.

But the number fell short of the government's target of 10 million, partially because of a slowdown in Chinese travellers in the wake of a seething territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing, the organisation said.

Diplomatic relations between the two sides plunged to their worst in years last year after Tokyo arrested a Chinese fishing trawler captain accused of deliberately ramming two Japanese coastguard vessels.

Visitor numbers rose despite the fact that the yen has soared against other major currencies - it hit a 15 year-high versus the dollar in November - which makes buying goods in the country more expensive for tourists.

South Korean visitors were the largest group to visit last year at 2.44 million, up 53.8 percent, followed by 1.41 million Chinese, up 40.5 percent, the tourist organisation said. Travellers from Taiwan rose 23.8 percent to 1.27 million.

Traveller numbers from France, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand reached record highs, while US visitors grew moderately.

The organisation also said the number of Japanese people going overseas increased 7.7 percent to 16.63 million last year, the first annual gain in four years, thanks to the stronger yen.