Although Chinese tourists continue to travel to Japan in droves, many have been getting overcharged at some duty-free shops in the country. Many tourists spent several thousand yuan at these shops on a box of enzymes that promised all manner of health benefits, even though the same box costs only several hundred yuan at a normal drugstore. The continuous product pitching by tour guides, as well as the cooperation between travel agencies and duty-free shops have contributed to the wretched experiences of these tourists while on group tours to Japan.
Japan, well-known for its scenic spots and high-quality products, has long been of great appeal to Chinese tourists. In recent years, some Chinese people have rushed to Japan to purchase daily necessities like smart toilet covers and drugs, making headlines in Chinese media.
However, many Chinese tourists who have joined tour groups to the neighboring country have been overcharged at duty-free shops.
"I regret buying a watch at a duty-free shop," said a white-collar worker surnamed Lu, who lives in Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province.
Lu joined a 15-person group tour to Japan in March. The group, organized by China International Travel Service (Jiangsu) Co (CITS), was met by a local travel agent when its members arrived in Japan.
"The prices at the Japanese duty-free shops were crazy!" Lu told the Global Times on Tuesday.
He spent 4,500 yuan ($682.2) on a watch at a duty-free shop called Laox, even though he could've bought the same watch for 3,000 yuan on amazon.co.jp.
Other Chinese tourists in Lu's group had similar experiences. A woman and a couple in the group each spent more than 5,000 yuan on two boxes of enzymes that promised various health benefits, Lu said.
"During the whole trip, the tour guide kept pushing healthcare products such as enzymes and natto extract. According to the tour guide, enzymes can help you take good care of your stomach, boost your immune system and prevent diseases. It sounded like an elixir," Lu said.
A tourist surnamed Zhang had a similar experience when he visited Japan in February. Zhang spent 910,000 yen ($8,554) at the Alexander & Sun duty-free shop in Tokyo.
He spent about one-third of the money on healthcare products such as enzymes and deep sea oil that the tour guide recommended, the Xinhua News Agency reported on May 1.
Generally, enzymes sold in drug stores cost several thousand yen, but the enzymes offered at some duty-free shops were several times more expensive, Xinhua reported on May 31.
The Chinese Embassy in Japan took up the issue with the Consumer Affairs Agency and the Japan Tourism Agency, but was told "they can't help," Xinhua reported.
"Currently, no new progress has been made on this issue," an embassy staff, who refused to be named, told the Global Times on Tuesday.
Paid by the buy
A woman surnamed Zheng ran into the same problem when she visited Japan in a 20-person tour group in May 2015.
On the last day of the trip, the group's Chinese tour guide took them to a duty-free shop in Tokyo, said Zheng, who works for a State-owned enterprise in Baoji, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.
"The prices there were extremely high. I remember that the price of a ceramic knife at the shop was nearly 2,000 yuan, even though I had bought an identical one from another duty-free shop for just 200 yuan," she told the Global Times on Monday.
In her group, five people bought products that the tour guide recommended. One couple spent more than 20,000 yuan, she said.
It's common for travel agencies to have deals with duty-free shops, hotels and restaurants, said Zhang Lingyun, director of the Tourism Development Academy at Beijing Union University.
One tour guide explained how duty- free stores paid her salary. Many tour guides don't have a base salary and only work on commission, said the guide, who refused to be named.
Under this arrangement, if tourists don't spend money in designated duty-free shops, their guides don't get paid.
"These tourists willingly enter the duty-free shops that guides take them to," the tour guide said. "They have signed an agreement to shop at these stores."
According to the tourist agreement sent by a receptionist at CITS's office in East China's Jiangsu Province, who did not give her name, the travel agency promises not to mislead or trick tourists into buying things, and reminds them to not spend beyond their means.
The receptionist told the Global Times on Tuesday that the company's tour groups to Japan usually go to Eisan and Laox, two duty-free shops in Japan.
Two other duty-free shops - Alexander & Sun and JTC - also work with travel agencies to coax Chinese tourists into buying expensive healthcare products, Xinhua reported on May 30.
The typical Chinese tour group to Japan has about 30 people, who spend 80,000 yuan on average at duty free stores, the tour guide said.
A portion of the sales goes to the travel agencies. The tour guide usually receives over 5 percent of the sales as commission.
The China National Tourism Administration did not comment on the matter when contacted by the Global Times on Monday.
An assistant manager of the Japan National Tourism Organization told the Global Times in an e-mail on Tuesday that they were unaware that Chinese tourists were being overcharged at duty-free stores.
An ongoing attraction
Although media reports have shown that some duty-free shops in Japan overcharge foreign visitors, the number of Chinese tourists to Japan continues to grow.
In 2015, the number of Chinese tourists to Japan reached 4.99 million. They spent 1.42 trillion yen, or 284,000 yen per capita, in the country, the People's Daily reported in May.
"I still would like to visit Japan again, though shopping in these duty-free shops are unpleasant," Lu said.
Almost all the tour groups to Japan in July are full, according to a statistical table the receptionist from CITS sent to the Global Times on Tuesday.
Tourists should compare prices online before buying anything at a duty-free store, said Zhang, the academic.
"If the same products sold in Japan are of higher quality than those sold in China, then relatively higher prices are reasonable," he said.
"It's hard for tourists to protect their interests in foreign countries due to the differences in language and law between China and other countries," said Zhao Zhanling, legal counsel for the Internet Society of China.
But if there is a quality problem, tourists can negotiate with the sellers or hire a local lawyer, Zhao told the Global Times on Wednesday.