One tough job: selling Fukushima

Travel industry on the ropes, faces long hard path to recovery

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

Hands down, the workers at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant trying to cool off the reactors have one of the toughest jobs in Japan.

But in terms of the burden on one person’s shoulders, Masaru Saga, director of the tourism division in the Fukushima Prefectural Government, also ranks high among those in a tight spot.

“At this point, it is difficult to tell when or where I can start” promoting tourism in Fukushima, Saga told The Japan Times last week.

With the end of the nuclear crisis nowhere in sight and international flights to the region being canceled, the prefecture’s entire tourism industry is up against a wall.

“Even the Japanese tourists are canceling their trips to the region. I don’t see how we can appeal to overseas travelers to come visit us now,” Saga said.

Overseas visitors to Fukushima saw a substantial rise in the past decade. In 2001, 24,548 foreign visitors came to the prefecture, according to the tourism promotion division. Their numbers grew to 128,490 by 2007.

The number of tourists decreased in 2009 due to the outbreak of H1N1 swine flu but were on the rise again in 2010.

South Koreans made up a large portion of the visitors, with 42,910 of them heading to Fukushima in 2007. Most were drawn by the scenic golf courses, Saga said.

The prefecture was ready to expand on the boom and try to persuade such travelers to extend their stay, possibly by introducing them to the ski resorts in the Aizu region.

The tourism division also collaborated with a South Korean TV crew who were in town to shoot a program about trekking courses in central Fukushima.

Selling the Tohoku experience as a package — such as coming up with tours starting out in Tochigi Prefecture’s Nikko, going through Fukushima and winding up in Miyagi Prefecture’s Sendai area — was another idea on the drawing board.

But the March 11 disaster and the inability to cool off the reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant nullified all the grandiose plans and have kept overseas visitors at home.

The Japan Tourism Agency reported last week that only 295,800 foreign nationals visited Japan in April, down 62.5 percent from the previous year.

Fukushima Prefecture’s Saga said the percentage is probably worse in his region.

Although the prefectural government has not officially researched the numbers, there is little doubt that few foreigners are visiting Fukushima at this point.

“I’d say it’s near zero,” Saga said.

The prefectural tourism division is also limping after the March 11 quake.

The building that hosted its offices lost electricity after the temblor, and Saga’s team had no option but to relocate. Repairs to the prefectural building are to be completed by the end of May.

But operations will still be far from normal because some staff have been pressed into other duties related to relief efforts.

Yet Saga said countermeasures against misleading media reports can’t wait until the reactors at the nuclear plant are brought under control.

For one, he said there is widespread misunderstanding overseas that the entire prefecture is in danger of excessive exposure to radioactive particles.

Some areas along the Pacific are indeed hurting, both from radiation and the devastation caused by the tsunami, Saga acknowledged, but he is quick to add that other tourist spots in the central and western parts of the prefecture are operating relatively unaffected by the crisis.

According to the municipal government in Aizuwakamatsu, located in the western part of Fukushima and known for its ski resorts, castles and Kitakata ramen, radiation levels at 26 monitoring points on May 18 saw a high of 0.29 microsievert per hour.

That level is substantially lower than the 0.53 microsievert per hour the same day at Minamisoma on the coast of Fukushima Prefecture.

“There is no risk to health in any part of the city” of Aizuwakamatsu, an expert reportedly said on the city’s website.

In the city of Fukushima, tap water has been confirmed safe for more than a month. The market ban has been lifted on many local vegetables that were revealed to contain high levels of contamination soon after the nuclear crisis started.

Mountaineering season at Mount Bandai, a popular tourist destination in northwest Fukushima, kicked off Sunday as originally planned, Saga added, stressing that the prefecture still has much to offer travelers.

Saga recognizes the task he faces may take not weeks or months but possibly years to accomplish, and bringing foreign visitors back to the region will have to proceed one step at a time.

“Right now, all we can do is explain that there are safe parts in Fukushima fit for sightseeing and traveling,” he said.

“It will be great if Japanese tourists and foreign travelers can visit such places and enjoy what it has to offer. In a sense, that is a way to show their support for Fukushima and its relief efforts,” he added.