At 6:30 p.m. on Dec 17, the final Qantas flight from the north Queensland resort of Cairns landed at Tokyo's Narita airport. Nobody shed any tears though and the very next morning, the Japanese press was announcing juicy new bargains on exactly the same route to Australia's holiday playground.
These half-page color ads explained that for a mere 8,000 yen (plus a modest fuel surcharge,) Japanese bargain-hunters could book seats for the late spring of 2009 on Jetstar to Cairns and the Aussie Gold Coast. The only catch was that you had to move mighty fast. Punters had just a few hours in which to grab what was undoubtedly a pretty good deal served up to commemorate the inauguration of the Jetstar service.
Anyone who hesitated though was bound to lose out. You had to have the non-refundable ready dosh and know your exact holiday dates - it also helps to be aware that you have to pay extra for meals on board and even for a blanket to fend off the chilly cabin pressure.
Budget planes offering budget seats clearly represent the future for a sizable segment of the traveling public. Provided you turn up with nothing bigger than a hand-carry bag and don't mind missing out on what used to be the free booze, then this is surely the way to go. The media coverage of the new daily Jetstar flights underlines this trend and must be worth millions of yen in free publicity to what is in reality simply the new no-frills version of Qantas.
The problem, though, for the global tourist industry is that the Japanese tourist is likely to be a rarer bird from now on. Of course, the yen is presently a strong currency as its daily gains against both the dollar and pound sterling make apparent, but this may not be sufficient to entice hard-pressed families to think of making expensive overseas trips.
The current rock-bottom bargain, though, must surely be the package to Seoul that includes flights and two nights in a decent hotel for 24,800 yen - no one can be making much out of this maxi-budget deal. It certainly beats the cost of a quick visit to Hokkaido.
Economic predictions for the next 12 months suggest that the ongoing global recession could well turn out to be both lengthier and more severe than earlier estimates. Once you throw in the deleveraging of international banks, the housing problems and now the crisis facing the auto industry in North America, Europe and in Japan, it is hard to envisage any early improvements.
It is significant that the recently announced cutbacks by Sony and Samsung in the electronics arena have been met by skepticism that even these retrenchments are unlikely to be sufficient. Corporations facing adverse currency swings and declining consumer appetites for white goods, LCD televisions and playstations may well have to take more drastic measures in the new year.
Fears that Japan may now be facing its lengthiest postwar contraction should be taken seriously. With the Bank of Japan getting ready to chop interest rates to zero and the yen hitting 13-year highs against the dollar last week, it is pretty clear that 2009 is going to be a difficult ride for the ruling LDP-led coalition government. Prime Minister Taro Aso, already subject to a barrage of criticism from the press, is left in an uncomfortable position facing the prospect of a general election that could see the opposition Democratic Party gaining power.
Under these circumstances, no one should be expecting the Japanese consumer to rush to the rescue of a recession-hit economy. When even the mighty Toyota is warning of production cuts and Honda is saying that it faces a massive deterioration in its market position, there really is no place to hide.
Mr and Mrs Watanabe are certain to do what most families in North America and Europe are now contemplating and cut back on discretionary spending. Quick haircuts costing a thousand yen are becoming the norm and even once pampered housewives are shopping in cheaper supermarkets. Louis Vuitton has just canceled its planned Ginza store as even the popularity of expensive brand names tanks. Savings are likely to grow out of a fear of harder times ahead, jobs will continue to be lost and corporate investment will turn south.
The good years are well and truly over. The only certainty for 2009 is that discount shopping is going to be a rare booming sector in a hard-pressed economy.© Japan Today