travel and tourism

[ANALYSIS] Reflections on Japan’s cherry blossom tourism

Isagani de Castro Jr.

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

[ANALYSIS] Reflections on Japan’s cherry blossom tourism

SAKURA. Visitors from all over the world enjoy cherry blossom viewing outside the Kanazawa Castle Park in Kanzawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, on April 13, 2024.

Isagani de Castro, Jr./Rappler

Flower tourism during spring pumps a whopping ¥615 billion (P227 billion) to Japan's economy in 2023. It’s time the Philippines consider having its own flower tourism program.

Another cherry blossom viewing season has ended in Japan, another boost to its economy. 

How much does this flower tourism contribute to our Asian neighbor’s growth?

A study by Katsuhiro Miyamoto, professor emeritus in Kansai University in Osaka, estimated the economic impact of “cherry blossom viewing” at an astonishing ¥615.8 billion or roughly P227 billion in 2023. (¥1 = P0.3687)

NAGOYA. Visitors enjoy the shade provided by a large sakura tree in Nagoya Castle park, Nagoya City, Aichi Prefecture, Japan, on April 12, 2924. Isagani de Castro Jr./Rappler 

A Google translation of the study’s summary says this figure includes total expenditures in two months – March and April – in cherry-blossom viewing by people who live in Japan, by foreign visitors to Japan, its direct effect on consumption expenditure, and the “economic ripple effect.”

A report in the English news publication Japan Times quotes Miyamoto as estimating the economic impact of cherry-blossom viewing in 2024 at 1.14 trillion yen or P420 billion, around twice as in 2023, mainly due to continuing revenge tourism and the depreciation of the yen, the latter making it cheaper to travel to Japan. During the busy spring season, the cost of airplane tickets and hotels is higher than normal. 

BLOOM. A closer view of sakura in bloom in Kanazawa Castle Park in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, on April 13, 2024. Isagani de Castro Jr./Rappler

One can’t help but be envious of what sakura, Japan’s unofficial national flower, does to its economy. Come to think of it, Japan is getting all those gains simply because they planted sakura trees, took care of them, and made it a tradition to travel or get together during spring and enjoy the cherry blossom flowers. The sakura is a strong symbol of Japan’s soft power.

FLORA. Two Filipino women take photos under a sakura tree outside a memorial museum in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, on April 13, 2024. Isagani de Castro Jr./Rappler

Filipinos, although we’re not the biggest, are among the key contributors to Japan’s flower tourism. South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States are the major sources of tourists to Japan, although they don’t necessarily go during spring. Many of them also go during winter and school vacation in July. 

After Japan liberalized the entry for Filipinos and other ASEAN nationals in 2013, the number of Filipinos going to Japan for tourism nearly doubled from 68,720 in 2013 to 136,561 in 2014. This would steadily go up until 2019 or before the COVID-19 halted global tourism. 

RISE, FALL, RISE. Graph shows the rise in number of Filipino tourists who went to Japan after it liberalized the entry to some ASEAN nationals in 2013, the steep drop during COVID-19, and the return to pre-pandemic levels in 2024. The 2024 line down should be excluded since it’s just May 2024 when this piece was published. Screenshot from Japan National Tourism Organization

By 2019 or prior to the pandemic, over half a million or 523,109 Filipinos tourists went to Japan. The numbers crashed during the pandemic years, but went back to pre-pandemic levels when 516,953 Filipino tourists visited Japan in 2023.

April, the peak sakura month, saw the most number of Filipino sightseeing visitors in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. December was the top month for Filipino tourists in 2016 and 2019, according to data from the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). 

The Philippines is now Japan’s second biggest source of visitors among ASEAN countries next to Thailand. From January to March 2024, there were around 323,700 Thai visitors and 200,800 Filipinos to Japan, based on preliminary figures of the JNTO. Vietnamese came in third (172,100) followed by Malaysians (134,200), and Singaporeans (132,000).

CRUISE. Sakura trees line the Matsukawa River, where tourists can take a 30-minute boat ride and view cherry blossoms in Toyama City, Toyama Prefecture, Japan, on April 15, 2024. Isagani de Castro Jr./Rappler

Filipinos were the 8th biggest source of visitors to Japan in the first three months of 2024 next to visitors from South Korea, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, US, Thailand, and Australia, based on the preliminary JNTO figures.

GARDEN. Tourists walk around the Kenrokuen Garden, which also has sakura trees, in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, on April 13, 2024. Kenrokuen Garden has been designated as a Place of Scenic Beauty and is one of three most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan. Isagani de Castro Jr./Rappler 

From 2014 to 2019, a Filipino traveler to Japan spent an average of ¥125,423 or roughly P46,240, according to surveys done by JNTO. 

SPENDING. Figures show the average amount in yen spent by Filipino short-term travelers to Japan from 2014 to 2019, based on questionnaire surveys by the Japan tourism authorities. This table is from the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) which cites Japan Tourism Agency’s “Consumption Trend Survey for Foreigners Visiting Japan” as basis. Image from JNTO

In March and April 2023, 92,646 Filipinos went to Japan for sightseeing. Although not all Filipinos visitors go to Japan in March and April for cherry blossom viewing, let’s assume that 90% of them, roughly 83,000, went there to at least also witness cherry blossoms. Multiplying this by ¥125,423 (P46,240) equals ¥10.4 billion or around P3.8 billion spent in Japan by Filipino tourists in those two months.

Rethinking the Panagbenga

As Filipinos feel excessive heat this El Niño year, aggravated by lack of trees and greenery, perhaps it’s time the government consider having its own flower tourism program. We have a few flower farms in the country operated mainly by private entities, but these are not part of an overall flower tourism campaign.

A flower tourism program should set aside areas in public places (or private gardens that can be opened to the public) where citizens and public servants can plant the appropriate flower-bearing trees and plants. Filipino botanists, architects, engineers, planners, and artists should be tapped to help in this initiative.

People, Person, Adult
ROSES. Participants hold up giant roses at the Panagbenga parade on February 24, 2024. Mia Magdalena Fokno

Recall that Baguio’s Flower Festival or the Panagbenga, the Philippines’ most famous flower festival, was started only in 1996. It was conceived partly as a response to the decline in visitors to Baguio resulting from the devastation wrought by the 1990 Luzon earthquake. 

Since then, it has become an annual February festival that has done wonders to Baguio’s local economy. According to one report, based on a conservative estimate of P1,000 spending by around 1 million festival visitors, Panagbenga pumps P1 billion to Baguio’s economy.  

There is one important difference between Baguio’s Panagbenga and Japan’s cherry blossom festival, and it’s a distinction that provides a key insight. 

PETALS. Sakura petals accumulate in one of the ponds in Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, on April 13, 2024. Isagani de Castro Jr./Rappler 

During sakura season, local and foreign visitors simply go to see the beauty of the trees and the experience of falling flower petals. They have picnics in parks with sakura trees or have lunch under sakura trees. 

Panagbenga involves people and entities making floats adorned with flowers grown in Benguet. There’s also a dance competition and a parade. 

[ANALYSIS] Reflections on Japan’s cherry blossom tourism

In other words, it’s a completely different experience – one is simply enjoying nature’s beauty, the other is participating in an event. 

There have been criticisms of Panagbenga being commercialized and inconsistent with the Cordillera people’s culture. They say the “real essence” of Baguio’s beauty, such as its pine trees and flowers planted in fields, has been lost in the festival. 

I would tend to agree with this view. If the government considers having a flower tourism program, it should be focused on planting flora, nurturing them, and enjoying their natural beauty. The commercialism should be focused on promoting flower viewing.

PINK. A potted pink bougainvillea in a private club in Makati City, Manila, on May 1, 2024. Isagani de Castro Jr./Rappler. 

My best pick for our own flower tourism is the bougainvillea, although it’s not native to the Philippines but to South America. It’s a tropical vine that grows the whole year. It loves the sun and can tolerate dry climate. However, it needs regular pruning in order to prevent overcrowding and to direct its growth. 

Bougainvilleas have various colors, such as pink, red, yellow, lavender, white, orange, and peach, which can very picturesque and Instagrammable. This can jumpstart a flower tourism program since it’s easier and faster to plant vines than wait for trees to grow. 

What’s important is to get the ball rolling so that not only will our urban and rural landscapes look better, we’ll also make a contribution to reversing climate change. – 

¥1 = P0.3687

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Isagani de Castro Jr.

Before he joined Rappler as senior desk editor, Isagani de Castro Jr. was longest-serving editor in chief of ABS-CBN News online. He had reported for the investigative magazine Newsbreak, Asahi Shimbun Manila, and Business Day. He has written chapters for books on politics, international relations, and civil society.