Public ‘self-restraint’ hits tourism

by Mie Sakamoto

Kyodo

One month after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, apparent self-restraint is still keeping people away from the country’s major sightseeing spots, including foreigners, who are steering clear of Japan as it struggles with its nuclear crisis.

The tourism industry will likely take a further blow from events and festivals being increasingly canceled even in areas that escaped big damage from the March 11 quake and tsunami.

Among major tourist spots in the Kanto region surrounding Tokyo, the Hakone hot springs resort in Kanagawa Prefecture, favored for its views of Mount Fuji, has seen a steep fall in tourists for this time of year, usually a busy season for viewing cherry blossoms.

“The number of hotel guests likely fell in March to about 20 to 30 percent of the number in usual years,” said Yoshimitsu Akinaga, an official at the Hakone Tourist Association. “We are seeing almost no foreign travelers.”

Elsewhere, a number of fireworks festivals scheduled for the summer have been called off, including one in Gifu Prefecture in July and another in Fukuoka Prefecture in August.

Tokyo’s Asakusa district, known for a famous Buddhist temple and many festivals throughout the year, is also facing cancellations of popular events, including the Sanja Matsuri (Three-Shrine Festival) in May, an annual event that usually draws about 1.5 million people.

It is the first time for the event to be canceled since the end of World War II, though organizers say they will still hold the traditional Shinto ritual associated with it to pray for early reconstruction of the disaster-hit areas.

“The decision was made due to security difficulties and the feeling that flamboyant events should not take place” in the aftermath of the disaster, said Shigemi Fuji, chairman of the Asakusa Tourist Federation.

Fuji, who runs a rice cracker shop in the Nakamise central shopping street in Asakusa, said sales at his shop plunged about 60 percent in March from last year. “Before the quake, about half of tourists in Asakusa were from other countries, but now, most of them are Japanese.”

But Fuji added he and other organizers of the Sumida River fireworks festival are making efforts to hold the summer event as scheduled. “The fireworks festival was originally held (back in the early 18 century) in the hope of dispelling adversities such as plague,” he said. “If not now, then when can we hold it?”

Ueno Park, one of the beauty spots in Tokyo whose roughly 1,200 cherry trees draw more than 1.5 million visitors each season, also faces a sharp decline in visitors after its annual cherry blossom festival was called off.

In addition, the metropolitan government has asked visitors to its parks to voluntarily refrain from holding parties under blooming cherry trees, a seasonal tradition known as “hanami.”

“We are seeing only one-third of the visitors compared with usual years,” said Hideo Obata, 50, who sells light meals at a stall in the park when events are held. “Company employees are refraining from holding parties because they would get criticized.”

Mitsumaru Kumagai, chief economist at Daiwa Institute of Research, said the mood against indulging in leisure-related activities is going to weigh on the economy.

“Though personal consumption to hoard supplies is growing, it only consists of about 12 percent of the (nation’s) entire consumption,” Kumagai said. “Leisure-related consumption has fallen by 30 to 50 percent, which is likely to have a negative impact as a whole.”

But a positive sign is seen in the Ueno area, thanks to a pair of giant pandas that were shown to the public from April 1 at Ueno Zoo, marking the first public viewing of pandas there in three years.

Sales of shops at the Ameyoko market street near Ueno Park dropped severely in March, but are returning to normal levels, said Tadao Futatsugi, chairman of the Ueno Tourism Association.

“Pandas are helping us revitalize,” Futatsugi said. Though the association had expected before the quake that the pandas would generate ¥20 billion by drawing many visitors, it is now hoping to make ¥10 billion.

“We have to emerge from conforming with others in voluntary restraint, otherwise we cannot support disaster-hit people” by underpinning the economy, he added.

Some foreign tourists shrugged off the advice given by a number of governments not to travel to Japan unless there is an urgent need.

“I don’t see the need” to cancel travel, said Briton Lloyd Mcgeoch-Williams, 29, who came to Tokyo for sightseeing earlier in April after visiting other parts of Japan, including Okinawa and Kyoto.

He said in Ueno last week that media reports about the nuclear crisis continuing at the Fukushima No.1 power plant, have tended to be “a little over the top.”

“I don’t always believe everything,” he said.

In Asakusa, 47-year-old Tim Beatie from Australia said he has been visiting Japan often for business and is also skeptical about what has been reported abroad about the nuclear crisis.

Beatie added events should be held as normally as possible in order to move forward. “Japan is a resilient society,” he said.