Bangkok, Thailand - January 15, 2016: Night rear view of Thai girls in Soi Cowboy street, one of the tree red district of Bangkok. Thailand 2016. Photo: iStock

Japan is going through a boom in inbound foreign tourism. Data show that more than 31 million foreigners visited the country in 2018, more than quadruple the number for 10 years ago. Without a doubt, many tourism businesses and destinations are seeing their revenues increase, helping the Japanese economy grow.

However, the surge of foreign tourists is not all positive. Foreign tourists in Japan are relatively concentrated in a few major cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, leading to an increasing popular backlash against over-tourism in these destinations even as more remote corners of the country are still seeing few foreign tourists.

Arguably, the remote, relatively unknown regions are much more in need of the economic stimuli provided by foreign tourism than major cities. The fear of “the death of regional cities” in Japan, due to a continued decrease in residential populations and a resulting economic decline, can be partially mitigated by foreign tourists who bring new sources of income.

Yet it is also highly understandable that foreign tourists are primarily concentrated in major cities rather than dying towns. Tokyo and Osaka, for instance, are major international gateways with frequent international flights, plenty of modern amenities, and convenient transport to nearby natural and ancient sites. Their global fame also ensures that they draw tourists even without much self-promotion.

Smaller, more off-the-beaten-path cities are not so blessed. Far from transport nodes and lacking headlining sights, they struggle to bring in tourists even if they spend handsomely on government-led self-promotion campaigns.

The result is an unfortunate “tourism inequality,” with major cities angered by too many tourists even while local towns remain desperate for them. A solution to address this inequality is needed to ensure that foreign tourism in Japan remains sustainable and beneficial for all as it continues to grow in the coming years.

One radical way for less-known Japanese towns to become major tourist destinations may be to open up sex tourism for foreigners on a limited scale.

One radical way for less-known Japanese towns to become major tourist destinations may be to open up sex tourism for foreigners on a limited scale

Sex tourism already has a ready foreign market. The Japanese adult video (AV) industry is already popular outside the country, particularly in neighboring countries such as China. Given the willingness of AV fans to spend money on their hobby, it is conceivable that many foreign fans would want to come to Japan to try something akin to the “real thing.”

Targeting foreign sex tourists has the added benefit of incurring very low initial investment. Other ways little-known Japanese towns could potentially attract foreign tourists, such as gambling and duty-free shopping, require governments and businesses to invest massive political and financial capital to change relevant laws, build needed facilities, and train suitable staff. But even in smaller Japanese towns, legal businesses offering sexual services already exist that cater to local residents. If a local government were to market its town as a sex-tourism destination, the same businesses could be incentivized – by potentially much higher profits serving foreign clients – to expand and retrain their employees to handle foreigners.

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Of course, a discussion of Japan as a potential sex-tourism destination cannot be complete without talking about the domestic backlash that would surely come from making such a move overtly. Many Japanese citizens and politicians will find the prospect of their home towns becoming sex-tourist destination degrading and a source of both logistical and moral disturbance to local life. The negative publicity received by established sex-tourism destinations such as Pattaya, Thailand, certainly would not soothe their nerves. Sex tourism for foreigners cannot take off in Japan without overcoming justified opposition to the industry’s unwanted potential impacts.

Yet the potential domestic backlash against sex tourism also represents an opportunity for the industry to become a driving force against “tourism inequality.” By only allowing sex tourism in a limited number of neighborhoods in towns that are far away from well-known, well-trafficked (regular) tourist destinations, Japan could boost tourism income for remote areas while shielding the industry’s presence from major cities where most local residents and tourists are.

Moreover, by designating only certain areas and specific businesses as open for foreign clients, local and national governments could better demarcate sex-tourism areas from the daily lives of local residents as well as better manage the designated businesses’ safety standards and behavior of foreign clients. The social costs of sex tourism can be minimized in the process.

Recent years’ increase in inbound foreign tourism has been a boon for Japan as a whole but the benefit of tourism income has been unequally distributed. While major cities and tourist sites seethe at over-tourism, more remote towns have not seen much tourist traffic at all. Opening up sex tourism for foreigners in designated areas outside major tourist destinations could be an effective solution to reduce the existing patterns of “tourism inequality.”

Xiaochen Su

Xiaochen Su PhD is a business risk consultant in Tokyo, as well as the founder and managing director of the Study Abroad Research Institute, a Tokyo-based non-profit organization promoting international education. He previously worked in East Africa, Taiwan, South Korea and Southeast Asia.

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