Japan struggles with manpower shortage as international arrivals soar

Japan’s travel and tourism sector is nearing pre-pandemic recovery, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council’s (WTTC) 2023 Economic Impact Research. However, rebound is being hampered by staff shortages.

The study predicts international visitor spend in Japan will reach US$16.8 billion in 2023, marking a 553.4 per cent increase year-on-year. The sector’s GDP contribution, meanwhile, is predicted to reach US$285.5 billion this year, just 6.8 per cent shy of the record high of US$306.5 billion in 2019.

Japan’s government aims to ease overcrowding in popular cities and highlight tourism in rural areas; Dotonbori in Osaka, pictured (Photo: beeboys)

However, the travel and tourism industry is currently 300,000 jobs short of pre-pandemic levels, according to the June report. Even if the sector creates around 470,000 jobs in 2023, the number predicted by WTTC, employment in the sector will still be 5.2 per cent below that of 2019.

Japan’s Tourism White Paper 2023, released in June, said structural challenges facing the country’s travel industry include labour shortage, high turnover (particularly in hospitality at 25.6 per cent) and low productivity.

The Japan Tourism Agency, meanwhile, noted that the number of overnight stays in hotels by international travellers exceeded 10 million in April, the first time since January 2020, but labour shortages and increased staff workloads remain a concern.

Heather Hopkins Clement, CEO of travel agency Cruise Port Navigation, said many parts of Japan’s tourism industry are “struggling with labour shortages” and “cannot keep up with demand”.

“Workers who left the accommodation and eating/drinking service sectors due to Covid have not returned,” said Mitsuo Fujiyama of the Japan Research Institute, adding that the pandemic “heightened concerns about the stability” of roles that already had tough working conditions and low wages in 2019.

Popular areas such as Kyoto are feeling the crunch more than others. Inbound visitors at the city’s hotels totalled 313,203 in April, 22.9 per cent more than in April 2019, according to DMO Kyoto.

The Japan Spot Work Association reports that requests for “spot workers” (gig workers who sign up for shifts by smartphone app) from hotels increased tenfold year-on-year in April.

Atsushi Nosaka of the harbour and airport promotions division at Wakayama Prefectural Government, said local companies are working to overcome a shortage of hospitality and tourism staff to support excursions for international cruise ships.

Meanwhile, the national government aims to ease overcrowding and stimulate greater tourism consumption in rural areas by attracting overseas visitors with new and improved offerings nationwide. Its 2023–25 tourism plan includes support for the promotion of remote islands, snow sports, farm stays, national parks, “tourism towns” with significant history and cycle tourism.

Hiroyuki Takahashi, chair of JTB Corporation, said JTB is “working together with the public and private sectors in developing new tourism attractions to expand capacity in rural areas” in the face of “extremely high and growing” global demand to visit Japan.

Japan welcomed 1.95 million international travellers in April 2023, a 1,297 per cent increase year-on-year, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization, and JTB projects 21 million international arrivals by the end of 2023.

Sponsored Post