By Megu Jones
TOKYO (Reuters) - The number of South Korean tourists visiting Japan fell last month to its lowest in nearly a year as visitors cancelled travel plans amid deteriorating relations between the neighbours, Japanese government data showed on Wednesday.
Tourist arrivals from South Korea dropped 7.6% in July from the corresponding month a year earlier, to stand at 561,700, the Japan National Tourism Organization said.
That was the lowest figure since September, when flooding from a typhoon closed Kansai airport and a strong earthquake struck Hokkaido, and provided the latest evidence of frayed ties.
South Koreans are boycotting Japanese products, from Asahi <2502.T> beer to Uniqlo <9983.T> clothing, in protest of Tokyo's decision in early July to set curbs on exports of key high-tech materials to its neighbour.
"A lot of Korean tour groups are cancelling trips to Japan," said Hiroshi Tabata, commissioner of the Japan Tourism Agency.
"We are watching the situation closely."Japan cited security reasons for the export curbs, but Seoul regards them as retaliation after South Korean court rulings last year ordered Japanese firms to compensate wartime forced labourers. Tokyo says the issue was settled by past agreements.
The row has escalated, with both countries this month removing each other from favoured-nation trading lists.
With the consumer boycotts sparking travel cancellations, carriers such as Korean Air <003490.KS> and Asiana Airlines <020560.KS> have started to cut flights and suspend routes to Japan.
Tabata said Japan's target of receiving 40 million overseas tourists by 2020 was intact. But his agency will ramp up efforts to win back tourists from South Korea, which has played a key role in the industry's growth.
Last year, 7.5 million South Korean tourists visited Japan, making up 24% of a total figure of 31.2 million, and second only to travellers from mainland China.
"We are preparing plans to increase the number of South Korean tourists by working with airlines and travel agencies," Tabata said.
Overall tourist arrivals from across the globe rose 5.6% in July, the data showed, and have reached 19.6 million in the year to date.
(Reporting by Megu Jones; Editing by Chris Gallagher and Clarence Fernandez)