Foreign tourist numbers have been plunging since the March 11 quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Fukushima Prefecture, and not only for visitors to the disaster zone.
The soaring yen is another factor discouraging visitation, but experts nonetheless hope to woo more foreign tourists, hoping they can stimulate an economy with a population that is rapidly aging and on the decline.
Following are questions and answers on international tourism in Japan after March 11.
How big an impact did the Great East Japan Earthquake have on foreign tourism?
Compared with a year earlier, foreign tourism since the catastrophe had plunged 50 percent from the previous year to 1,786,000 as of July 31, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
Between March 12 and 31, visitor numbers sank by 72.7 percent.
The rate of decline has since eased, with July’s numbers off 36.1 percent from a year ago.
The Tohoku region saw the most severe plunge in tourism, but other regions also suffered from canceled international flights as demand sank after the disasters, agency officials said.
Why are foreigners still avoiding Japan?
One key reason is fear of exposure to radioactive fallout from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, which has contaminated the atmosphere, the sea, the soil and the food supply.
Shuichi Kameyama, head of the agency’s international tourism promotion division, said that foreign news reports on the catastrophe and nuclear crisis — especially in the initial stage when the government had no idea what was going on and communications were in disarray — scared off tourists.
Some foreign media went to the extreme of warning of a deadly radioactive cloud descending on Tokyo and turning its residents into zombies, before drifting across the Pacific to menace the United States and Ireland.
“The impact of such media reports was huge.” Kameyama said.
Foreign tourists were further scared by late reports that confirmed radioactive substances had entered the food chain, including cesium-contaminated fish, vegetables, beef and tea.
The government had initially assured its public that food was safe, only to later admit that radiation-contaminated beef had already been sold in stores, prompting bans on food shipments in various affected areas.
Why is promoting international tourism vital to Japan?
Kosuke Motani, senior vice president of Development Bank of Japan, says increasing foreign tourism will help offset shrinking domestic demand as the population declines.
Motani, author of the bestselling book “Defure no Shotai” (“True Character of Deflation”), stressed that boosting foreign tourists is especially important as the nation struggles to rebuild.
Visiting foreigners, including business travelers, spent around ¥1 trillion in Japan in 2008, Motani said.
But Singapore, whose population is only a 25th of Japan’s, also brings in about ¥1 trillion from foreign travelers. Australia, whose population is less than one-sixth of Japan’s, and Turkey each take in ¥2 trillion. China and Italy glean ¥4 trillion and the United States ¥11 trillion, according to Motani. “Japan still has potential to grow by several trillion yen,” he said.
Noting that Chinese are spending more on international travel, Motani emphasized that it is imperative for Japan to lure more Chinese visitors.
Based on the agency’s estimate, Motani said tourism revenues of ¥1 trillion would translate into ¥2.3 trillion in gross domestic product because it would create 190,000 jobs and ¥220 billion in tax revenue.
Tourism would obviously revitalize all regional industries, including agriculture, manufacturing, construction, real estate, financial and other services, he said.
To lift the economy, Yasunari Ueno, chief market economist at Mizuho Securities Co., said consumer numbers must be increased and it is crucial to include tourists among them.
He said the total travel expenditures of six foreign tourists almost amounts to the annual per capita consumption of one Japanese.
What government measures have been taken to lure more foreign tourists?
The government provides information on the current situation, including radiation readings and transportation, on the website of Japan National Tourism Organization.
It is also posting encouraging messages on YouTube made by foreign celebrities, including singer Lady Gaga, British designer Paul Smith, British accessories designer Anya Hindmarch, Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb and Canadian singer-songwriter Justin Bieber, who all say Japan is safe to visit.
Japanese boy band Arashi also made a pitch to attract more visitors with a film titled “Message from Japan” featuring the five-member pop idol group airing in more than 133 countries and regions.
The agency said it has so far invited around 1,000 professional media and tourism officials from around the world to Japan. “With those measures, we hope we can assure that the nuclear accident is not affecting all of Japan,” agency official Kameyama said.
What are the chances of a tourism rebound?
Kameyama said it is very difficult to foresee the future amid the nuclear crisis.
“In Japan, the situation has not completely become safe yet,” Kameyama said. Unless the nuclear plant is stabilized, restoring a normal level of foreign visitors may be difficult, he said.
What other tourism goals should be pursued?
Before March 11, the agency’s goal was to draw in 30 million foreign travelers and that has not changed.
But Motani of DBJ suggested that the government should not just go after numbers but instead aim to woo the kind of visitors who will be more inclined to spend.
Motani noted Japan has been popular because of the quality of the services provided to foreign visitors. “The services provided in Japan are high quality and highly competitive,” he said, stressing the importance of continuing to cater to visitors.
Although government finances are tight, Motani urged that more be spent to promote international tourism because of the potential economic benefits.
He said JNTO’s fiscal 2008 budget was ¥3.4 billion, including a ¥2 billion government subsidy. The Swiss counterpart of the annual budget is around ¥7 billion and Singapore’s is ¥12 billion.
Motani said many Japan-bound Asian tourists are required to provide documents to show they have money in the bank when applying for visitation visas, whereas Japanese going to their countries do not even need a visa.
“I want (the government) to annually improve the system and acknowledge from its very foundations that tourists are very important guests for Japan, no matter where they come from.”
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