APEC tourism ministers meet amid Senkakus row

by Eric Johnston

NARA — Amid growing tensions between Japan and China, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation kicked off its tourism conference Wednesday in the ancient capital of Nara, where delegates discussed regional tourism trends since the economic crisis of 2008, when they last met, and ways to improve Asia’s tourism infrastructure.

The row between Tokyo and Beijing over the arrest of the captain of a Chinese boat near the Senkaku Islands — claimed by both nations and Taiwan — cast a pall over the meeting of officials from the 21 APEC member nations.

On Tuesday, newly appointed Land, Transport, Infrastructure and Tourism Minister Sumio Mabuchi said he would not meet with Zhu Shanzhong, vice chairman of the China National Tourism Administration and China’s top delegate at the Nara meeting. Zhu was supposed to pay a courtesy call on the minister.

Mabuchi kept his word and did not greet Zhu before the opening sessions Wednesday.

In response, the Chinese delegates said they would not attend an evening reception hosted by Japan.

In his welcome speech, however, Mabuchi avoided politics and emphasized the economic benefits the tourism industry has to offer at a time when the world is still trying to recover from a global economic crisis.

“The last time the APEC tourism ministers gathered was in April, 2008. Since then, we’ve seen the world economy collapse following the Lehman Brothers shock in the United States, the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, natural disasters, and other developments that have slowed economic growth,” Mabuchi said.

“But tourism is an industry that has a positive influence on stable employment and regional economic revitalization, and its sustainable development is extremely important,” he added.

At the two-day conference, ministers are expected to present reports on their respective tourism industries and their governments’ efforts to make travel smoother for international visitors.

Some discussion was expected on specific issues, including airline deregulation and efforts to allow the entry of more low cost Asian-based carriers, as well as more general themes, such as improving inbound tourism. The ministers were expected to issue a statement Thursday on what APEC needs to do to improve regional tourism.

A World Tourism Organization survey of trends last year noted that global tourist arrivals in 2009 fell by 4 percent compared with 2008 as a whole. However, the second half of the year was good for the Asia-Pacific region, with a 3 percent growth rate in international tourism arrivals in the July-December 2009. Much of the growth, the report noted, was due to a sense of optimism in the region, particularly in China, that the economy is recovering.

Japan, however, was one of the most affected destinations for inbound tourism in the Asia-Pacific. International arrivals to Japan fell nearly 20 percent in 2009 compared with 2008, largely due to the surging yen, the group said. In addition, outbound travel from Japan to the rest of Asia fell 3 percent from the previous year. This was partially caused by the spread of the H1N1 virus in the first half of the year, when many businesses and individuals canceled travel plans, and by declines in disposable incomes amid concern over the economy.

The Japanese delegation told the other APEC members that, while the 2009 inbound figures were bad, a slow improvement was seen in the first half of 2010.

Ministers were expected to continue discussing sustainable tourism Thursday, including the promotion of eco-tourism.