Hotel chiefs worried as couples tie the knot overseas

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In her hunt for a wedding venue, Kaoru Kinami, 30, didn’t even look at brochures an aunt gave her of Tokyo hotels.

“I wanted an intimate wedding,” said Kinami, who married in May in Perth, Australia, and lives in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture. “Weddings in Japan always feel formal, cold and administrative.”

She didn’t want to make her wedding an office event, with bosses and coworkers taking center stage, she said.

In 2003, 40,357 couples opted to get hitched abroad, according to a survey by Kyoto-based Watabe Wedding Corp., which handled a little over half of those weddings. The most popular destinations included Hawaii, Guam and Saipan.

Although the number makes up only 5.5 percent of all weddings recorded officially, brides like Kinami worry hotel managers.

“Weddings make up a third of hotels’ revenue,” said Francois Knockaert, general manager of Osaka’s Swissotel Nankai.

The number of weddings abroad was down 17 percent from 2002, slumping for a third straight year on fears of terrorist attacks and SARS. Watabe said the number of weddings it has handled between January and June this year is up 15 percent from the same period of last year.

For hotels overseas, such nuptials are no small pickings.

A popular wedding package Watabe arranges in Hawaii, with weeklong stays for 15 to 20 people, costs about 3 million yen. That compares with an average of 2.8 million yen spent on domestic weddings and receptions and another 900,000 yen on honeymoons and dowries in 2003, according to a survey by Recruit Co., which publishes a monthly magazine with bridal information.

“One popular request is for an autumn wedding in a castle in Europe, with swans swimming in the background,” said Yukiko Aoki, spokeswoman at Watabe. Despite the relatively high price, “People are willing to spend what it takes to realize that part of their wedding dreams most important to them,” she said.

There are more competitors in the wedding industry. Innovative planners that promise one-of-a-kind weddings in a movie-land setting are also gaining ground.

The number of nuptials, however, is projected to fall to half their 2000 peak of 80,000 by 2015, as people get married later and the population declines.

“Everyone is going to have to be on their toes to hold onto their slice of the pie,” Aoki said.