Every spring, as the wave of blossoms sweeps up the archipelago from south to north, washing up from the coasts into the higher altitudes, travelers flood into Japan. Rivaled only by the cool autumn months that redden maple leaves across the country, March and April are high season for tourism in Japan.

Overseas and, to an extent, domestically, the travel industry promotes the country with a barrage of images of frothy white blossoms set against Japan’s most iconic sights: castles, geisha, Mount Fuji. In glossy brochures and on image-heavy websites, tour companies feature spring trips that begin in Kyoto and terminate in Tokyo, keeping pace with the cherry blossom front.

For the travel industry, the March 11 disaster could hardly have struck at a worse time. The threat of radiation — paired with travel warnings that reached as far south as Tokyo — hit home with prospective holidaymakers. Travelers scrapped their vacation plans; tour companies cancelled many scheduled group tours. Not surprisingly, Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) statistics for March confirm a plunge in visitor numbers to 352,800 arrivals — half the previous year’s total of 709,684. Figures that had been steadily climbing over the last decade fell suddenly to record lows.

At InsideJapan Tours, a travel company based in Bristol, southwest England, just 10 percent of booked clients travelled in March, with only another 27 percent re-booking for a later date. Luxury travel company Into Japan Specialist Tours reported that a mere 1 percent of March and April clients travelled in those months. While many of those who were forced to cancel their holidays plan to visit later this year or next spring, those in the travel industry whose livelihoods depend on tourism to Japan are finding themselves on very shaky ground.

David Lee, managing director of Into Japan Specialist Tours, says that this is a difficult time for all sectors of the Japan travel business — but even more so for firms like his that rely entirely on foreign custom. Into Japan is operating on a skeleton staff at both its Tokyo and Oxford offices.

Times are particularly trying for tour guides, who depend heavily on high-season income to sustain them throughout the year.

“There are people whose work has been wiped out during the peak season,” says Lee. The French Foreign Ministry’s swift and unequivocal warnings against travel to Japan, combined with an already limited market, mean that “French-speaking guides in particular may find it very hard to get any work the rest of the year,” Lee explains. Finding extra time on their hands, “a lot of the guides we would normally use have gone to volunteer in the north,” he says.

Fueled by unprecedented images of waves engulfing entire villages and towns, the concern for the people affected and drive to do something tangible to help has been a global phenomenon. Internet message boards reveal that many who made the difficult decision to cancel holidays to Japan in the early days after the disaster donated portions of their refunded fares to charities working in the quake- and tsunami-affected region.

“Those of us who cancelled feel sad . . . I know I do. In lieu of our trip, I made a large donation to the Red Cross,” wrote one Fodors.com user who had planned to visit Japan in late March.

“We ended up taking the full refund offered us when it was available for our trip,” wrote another, who now intends instead to lend a hand in Tohoku later this year. “I think it was the right thing to do, given the scale of the damage and the whole situation as it appeared at the time. We had it in our minds to wait and see how things would be at the summer, and then I heard they will be looking for groups of volunteers to help with the rebuilding. . . . I don’t think it is necessary that everyone who visits volunteer, I just think it is the right thing for us.”

InsideJapan is raising funds for the Japanese charity Civic Force. Most other Japan tour companies feature links to the Red Cross or other charities on their homepages. Going one step further, Into Japan Specialist Tours has set up its own charity, Helping Hands for Japan, to benefit children orphaned by the quake and tsunami. When we spoke recently, Lee had just returned from a volunteering and fact-finding trip to Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture.

Into Japan works closely with travel agents worldwide, planning itineraries for a number or luxury travel brands. Using this knowhow to put together holidays that include an element of volunteering in Tohoku seemed like a logical next step for Lee, who has close personal ties to Japan as well as a deep affection for the country. By working with companies with experience in philanthropic tourism, Lee feels that bringing international volunteers into the region in the long term will “naturally lead to people locally wanting to contribute internationally in the future.”

Perhaps because these specialist tour operators see themselves in some ways as cultural ambassadors for Japan, the shift from promotion to philanthropy doesn’t seem to have been a huge leap. Along with raising funds for Japan, these companies have also been active in reporting the facts on the ground. As newspaper headlines and international travel advisories warned visitors away, InsideJapan has been calmly campaigning for a better understanding of the situation.

For example, the company is quick to point out to potential visitors that life outside of the Tohoku region has been largely unaffected by the disaster, save for the rolling blackouts and mild radiation concerns in the days immediately following the quake.

“We have also been keen to dispel popular myths that have always surrounded travel to Japan that have stopped people travelling in the past,” explains James Mundy of InsideJapan. “As a tour operator, we have always been keen in helping people to have a fantastic cultural experience and develop a new-found love for this special place and its people.

“Since March 11, InsideJapan have continued to promote Japan as a travelling destination, but we have also taken it upon ourselves to promote Japan as a nation more vigorously in the light of oversensationalist headlines and sometimes inaccurate reporting in the Western media,” says Mundy. “Many people are reliant on what they read in the press and so it is our duty to try and get accurate information about Japan out there.”

On an economic level, bringing tourists back into Japan is crucial for the survival of not only these specialist tour organizers, but also the whole domestic travel industry, from airlines to tour guides. The Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) and JNTO are injecting ¥500 million into projects aimed at coaxing travelers back to Japan in the short term. The JNTO measures include making sure that up-to-date information on the situation in the north is available through their website, supporting travel agents and tour organizers, and promoting and marketing Japan through traditional and social media.

“Japan is an incredibly unique and diverse destination. It is safe and ready to welcome back visitors. People from around the world can still have a fabulous holiday in Japan,” says Hideki Tomioka, director of JNTO’s London office.

Only time will tell whether the efforts by JNTO, JTA and others to entice travelers back to Japan will pay off. The number of foreign tourists visiting Japan topped 6 million in 2009, and, in the wake of the Tohoku disaster, coming anywhere close to that figure this year would be a considerable achievement in itself.

In the meantime, Japan travel articles are trickling back into overseas broadsheets, and even the country’s most famous destinations are, reputedly, blissfully quiet.

Lodgings and travel companies alike are in desperate need of custom, and there are deals to be found throughout the country. And with many companies donating a portion of their profits to charities working in Tohoku, the future of travel in Japan may still be uncertain, but the present looks pretty tempting.

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