After the quake: Rebuilding Japan's tourist trade

After the quake: Rebuilding Japan's tourist trade

One year on, the industry looks to new horizons as it hopes to move past the March 11 disasters
Japan tourism
Japan's tourist authorities and individual businesses across the country are rolling out the red carpet in 2012.

Yoshi Matsuda loves this time of year.

“Right now it’s so beautiful, amazing,” he says from Wanosato, the luxury ryokan he owns near the city of Hida-Takayama in the Japanese Alps.

The 180-year-old buildings are surrounded by trees. Snow covers their thatched rooftops. The water of the nearby Miyagawa river rushes over rocks on its way downstream.

It’s a setting that promises to become even more beautiful with the arrival of spring, summer and fall. The only thing missing -- more guests to enjoy it.

“Maybe in May we’ll start recovering from March 11,” Matsuda forecasts.

The earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear accident hit Wanosato hard. Reservations from Europeans, especially French travelers, evaporated. The ryokan and onsen, which can accommodate 30 people, was empty for almost three weeks. Matsuda says he lost ¥10 million.

“Honestly, I thought I couldn't do anything, you know,” he recounts. “Just have to wait, and give the information to the foreign guests or foreign countries, that’s all I can do.”

The dreaded “R word”

By information, Matsuda’s referring to the dreaded “R word” -- radiation -- and the question on the minds of anyone considering a trip to Japan: is it safe?

People who work in the tourism industry have been juggling this hot potato for months.

“The difficulty is the issue related to the radioactivity problem, which is very complicated and difficult for the general public, including myself, to understand how dangerous it actually is,” says Mamoru Kobori of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO).

Tsunami-damaged hotelThis hotel in Miyagi Prefecture was all but obliterated on March 11 last year.

But Kobori says there’s enough information showing the fallout from the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant doesn’t pose a threat to visitors.

Life, he says, is carrying on as normal across the country, including Tokyo.

“We want to convey the message that Japan is now all right to travel to,” he says. “We are ready to receive more travelers with traditional hospitality.”

Saying that, of course, is the easy part. Getting people to believe it is a little harder, especially when Japanese government leaders and nuclear authorities have been criticized for how they handled this nuclear crisis.

A new report by an independent panel says politicians downplayed risks, held back information and only averted widespread disaster through sheer luck.

More on CNNGo: Who’s telling the truth on the Fukushima meltdown?

The price of fear

The impact of the fear and skepticism abroad is clear. The number of incoming visitors dropped a record 27.8 percent in 2011.

Tourism officials had hoped to welcome more than 10 million people. Instead, 6.21 million travelers came.

The downturn continued into January, but the rate of decline was the lowest and the number of visitors the highest in 11 months because China’s Lunar New Year, often in February, brought a steady stream of holidaymakers.

The latest statistics, due mid-March, aren’t expected to be stellar. But JNTO's Korbori believes things are on the up-and-up.

KayoteiKayotei in Ishikawa Prefecture recovered rapidly after the quake.

“For the next few months, we’ll be able to see a good recovery,” he predicts, suggesting most numbers should reach pre-disaster norms by spring. “We would like to see a full recovery, even in distant markets such as Europe, by summer or autumn.”

In fact, Kobori and his colleagues are even trying to raise the bar. They want to welcome nine million tourists in Japan, which would beat the record of 8.6 million, set in 2010. Looking ahead to 2016, the target is 18 million.

More on CNNGo: Tourism shudders in quake-hit Japan

So that means they’ll be pumping more money into marketing. Advertisements in newspapers, on TV, online -- everywhere really.

Free trips to Japan for travel agents, journalists, even university students. Plus cultural and information blitzes abroad, especially in key Asian markets.

Elsewhere, the World Travel & Tourism Council puts a cash value on its recovery forecast. It predicts 2012 will see the industry bring in ¥10.3 trillion ($129 billion) -- slightly more than in 2010.

Business heal thyself

Businesses are spending more too. APPI ski resort in Iwate Prefecture, which is in the hard-hit northeastern region of Tohoku, devoted much of the winter trying to convince people its slopes are safe.

“If the situation continues, we won’t be able to survive,” Takashi Ohbatake, one of the resort’s hotel managers told Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK. “So we’re doing everything we can to attract tourists.”

Their marketing effort even includes measuring the level of radiation on the pistes, which are more than 300 kilometers away from Fukushima Daiichi.

More on CNNGo: 10 top ski resorts to visit this winter

Not every business is going that far, but a fair number of them are offering deals to lure foreign travelers, or to encourage Japanese to pick up the slack. And when all else fails, nothing beats a “Dear Tourist” phone call or email.

“We’re contacting clients directly, contacting agents and partners,” says Jiro Takeuchi, who manages the Kayotei ryokan in Ishikawa Prefecture.

In the 10 years he’s been running this place, business has never been so bad. He says 90 percent of foreign guests cancelled last spring and fall, although domestic bookings are still strong.

“We are far away from Fukushima, and we are not affected at all,” Takeuchi explains. “Nothing has changed. We would love to have international guests back again.”

Takeuchi says reservations are trickling in, but spring bookings from abroad are about half of what they were before March 11, 2011.

Location, location

Geography is a thorny issue, it seems. Susan Ong, JNTO's Singapore manager, agrees.

"Many people are not that familiar with geographical locations and believed all of Japan was affected and unsafe," she says.

"So, we needed to provide specific information and to educate the travel agencies and travelers about which parts are safe to travel to.”

The abundance of deals at present might even be seen as a golden opportunity for tourists. They save money, and they also get a less-crowded Japan.

József Kapor from Budapest looked like he had the place to himself on a rainy morning in early March, standing outside Shibuya Station with his camera capturing images of the mad dash underway at the famous pedestrian scramble crossing.

Worries about radiation, or even predictions a strong quake could hit the Japanese capital within a few years, don’t seem to faze him.

“I think Tokyo is not dangerous,” he says, after seeking cover beneath an overhang. “Of course, nearby Fukushima is dangerous.”

Kapor, here with his wife for a week of business and pleasure, says he does think twice about seafood because of all the radioactive material that’s leaked into the waters around Japan.

The answer from tourism officials? Anything that ends up on your plate has been screened, so tuck in.

“More than 100,000 food items are now checked by the government or companies and those contaminated items are eliminated from the market,” says JNTO’s Mamoru Kobori.

"In general, people don’t have to be concerned about food and water situation.”

More on CNNGo: New survey finds radiation in Tokyo food supply

Kobori and his colleagues are committed to reassuring and welcoming all tourists, of course, but their focus is skewed toward the visitors in the so-called biggest markets. Taiwan, Hong Kong and China are showing a “strong recovery,” but South Korea remains a concern.

Tourism from that country, Japan’s largest market of late, was down 35 percent in January compared to a year earlier.

A stronger yen and a weaker won is one factor. Media coverage is another.

Skewed reports

“I think their concern [about radiation] is accelerated by Korean TV and newspapers,” Kobori points out. “Sometimes worries reported in a small article in Japan are expanded or exaggerated.”

And so Japanese tourism and government officials are applauding a move by South Korea to open an office in the northeastern city of Sendai to promote attractions in the Tohoku region, and to provide up-to-date radiation reports.

They’re also setting up bilateral meetings and cultural exchanges. A year after the disaster, there’s still plenty of work to do.

The good old days

The charm offensive. The constant need to restore confidence. And that dirty, nine-letter word that keeps coming up.

It’s enough to make people in the tourism business long for the good old days -- a time when promoting Japan meant talking about how a visit to this country would benefit a tourist’s soul, not about how it may or may not be harmful to one’s health.

Yoshi Matsuda of the Wanosato ryokan feels it’s time to move on from the disaster, so his advertising is focused on what Japan has to offer. Full stop.

“We don’t say March 11 or anything like that,” he confides. “This is the best advertisement, I guess, more than to say it’s tragic or so sad. I think that’s not good for [customer] service.”

Matsuda is expecting the majority of his foreign guests to return this autumn, one of the most popular seasons.

All he wants is for them to enjoy a walk in the woods, a soak in the onsen and a little hot sake. Oh, and if the “R word” comes up, don’t be surprised if he tops up your glass and changes the subject.

“I want to emphasize that it's normal here, so please come and enjoy your trip.”

C. James Dale is a Canadian journalist based in Tokyo.

Read more about C. James Dale
CNN Partner Hotels

Destination Berlin

World War II bunker and former margarine factory among cutting edge venues in ever-changing city