Akihiro is planning to spend some of his New Year’s holiday at a hot spring resort.
“We haven’t decided exactly where yet, but somewhere close to Tokyo. My work schedule only gives me a few days off,” he said while browsing through a rack of brochures with his girlfriend at a travel agency inside Shinjuku Station in Tokyo.
Akihiro (he declined to give his last name) is one of an estimated 30.16 million Japanese planning to go somewhere during the New Year’s break, which generally lasts from Dec. 23 to Jan. 3.
The vast majority of travelers — 98.6 percent — are expected to remain in Japan, fueling a boom in domestic travel.
The figures are based on a projection released in mid-December by JTB Corp., the nation’s largest travel agency.
The 29.72 million Japanese expected to travel within Japan this holiday season represent the highest such number since the 1991-1992 season, at the tail end of the economic bubble, and the second highest since JTB’s surveys first started in 1969.
JTB asked 2,200 people nationwide about their travel plans between Dec. 22 and Jan. 6.
Nippon Travel Agency Co., another major operator that handles both domestic and international travel, is figuring on an even bigger surge in domestic travel. Company spokesman Hitoshi Sato said that, based on the firm’s reservations as of mid-December, domestic travel was up about 40 percent for the holiday season from the same period a year ago.
For international travel, however, it is an entirely different story.
JTB’s projection showed that the number of people heading overseas during the New Year’s break is down by more than 30 percent compared with the same period a year ago and even lower than the 1999-2000 season, when many people had serious fears that the Y2K computer bug might cause airliners to fall from the sky.
At NTA, international bookings were down between 50 percent and 70 percent, Sato said.
The major factor behind the decline is lingering fears stemming from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
“Even though a lot of Americans and Europeans are now apparently talking about a recovery (in international travel), the Japanese mind-set has yet to recover to previous levels,” Sato said.
Hayato Imai, an agent at No. 1 Travel, a Tokyo agency that handles overseas destinations, says that in the aftermath of the attacks, his business suddenly got “very, very bad.”
“In October and November, it was terrible, with decreasing passengers,” he said. “Some of my passengers wanted to cancel. They said they wanted to change to domestic travel, like Hokkaido or Okinawa.”
Reservations have since picked up, he said, though not to levels seen in previous years.
JTB spokesman Tsuneo Nishiyama believes that terrorism fears caused as many as 230,000 travelers nationwide to cancel plans to travel overseas for the New Year’s break, and that perhaps about half that number have switched to domestic trips.
Domestic travel, however, is shaping up to become one of the few bright spots on Japan’s otherwise dismal economic landscape.
The New Year’s break is customarily a time to return to one’s hometown to spend time with families, although many Japanese use the period for vacations away from home.
This holiday season comes on the heels of the opening of two sprawling amusement parks — Tokyo DisneySea in Chiba Prefecture, which opened in September, and Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, which opened its doors in March.
“The Disney resorts and USJ are the most popular domestic spots this season,” JTB’s Nishiyama said. “Also, you have the hot spring resorts located near the major cites and prefectures, in particular Izu and Hakone.”
A spokeswoman at Oriental Land Corp., the operator of the Disney resorts, said the company had no projections for the number of visitors during the New Year’s holiday period. However, in March the company said that about 25 million people were expected to take in the resorts during fiscal 2002, which begins in April, up from the 20.7 million predicted for the current fiscal year.
JTB says bookings at hotels near the Disney amusement park for the holiday season are 15 percent higher than a year ago. And for bookings in hotels in Osaka, the figure is nearly double, thanks mainly to USJ.
Also experiencing a surge of interest this season are the mainly natural attractions of Hokkaido and Kyushu.
Yet Okinawa Prefecture, long a popular travel destination due to its spectacular beaches, diving and distinctive culture, is seeing no such boom. A common fear is that the heavy concentration of U.S. military bases there makes it an attractive target for terrorists.
“Due to the bases, a lot of tourists are giving Okinawa a miss,” says NTA’s Sato.
And the increase in domestic travel is having a positive effect in the rest of the economy.
For instance, USJ is expected to create economic effects worth nearly 800 billion yen during the current fiscal year, almost 300 billion yen higher than originally forecast, according to the Daiwa Research Institute’s president, Koichi Kunisada.
“A number of visitors come back to the park while occupancy rates are high at nearby hotels,” he said.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5