The newly signed U.S.-Japan tourism promotion pact shows the United States is greatly aware of just how much Japanese tourists mean to its economy, according to U.S. tourism industry leaders who visited Japan last week to attend the agreement’s signing ceremony.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans and transport minister Chikage Ogi on Friday signed the unprecedented bilateral agreement, under which the two countries aim to increase bilateral tourism by at least 20 percent in the next five years.

A bilateral tourism expansion council will also be created as well as two working groups led by industry representatives to achieve that goal.

“We certainly have strong working relationships in the market, like the U.K. and Mexico. But there is no more valuable market today than Japan in terms of economic value that comes from visitors from Japan,” George Kirkland, president of Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau, said in an interview.

Japanese travelers to the U.S. are the biggest-spending foreign tourists. In 2000 alone, they spent nearly $14 billion in the U.S. market. But cautious Japanese have stayed away from what used to be their popular continental destinations of New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles since September.

Kirkland, along with John Marriott, executive vice president of Marriott International Inc., was asked to cochair the newly established U.S. working group to address these issues.

Kirkland said that the number of American travelers to Japan has also dropped, by 20 percent in 2001 from the year before, so the agreement also aims to bring more American tourists back to Japan.

“Absolutely no one in the travel industry in the U.S. today is really focused on helping to build travel to Japan. And yet we know the distribution system. We certainly have the resources to do that and we need to be sure we take advantage of that,” he said.

As to what made it possible to create this pact, Kirkland said discussions between the U.S. secretary of commerce and the transport minister were re-emphasized in a Tokyo summit between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President George W. Bush in February.

“Frankly, we have never seen this kind of leadership at that level in government on travel industry issues,” he said.

In a separate interview, Marriott also agreed that the joint approach by the government and the private sector owes much to the efforts of political leadership and the level of damage that the U.S. industry has suffered.

Speaking about the U.S. hotel industry, Marriott said the occupancy rate, which had averaged 90 percent prior to Sept. 11, dropped to 10 percent immediately after the attacks.

Though it has since edged up to 90 percent of the previous year’s level, Marriott, a grandson of Marriott Corp.’s founder, stressed that the serious blow to the industry has become “more of the economic issue.”

Highly alarmed, President Bush quickly appeared on TV commercials last fall, smiling next to an airplane and urging people to travel more, while he promised safety.

Marriott admitted that it was his father, the current CEO, J.W. Marriott, who convinced Bush to be on the TV ads. So when the younger Marriott came to Japan in January, he brought a videotape of the commercial and showed it to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda at their dinner table.

“We’ve been working to try to get the prime minister to support something like this,” he said. Though Koizumi never did a TV commercial like Bush did, Marriott said that it was the combination of all of these efforts that led to the latest move.

The U.S. working group will hold its first meeting early next month and hopes to hammer out concrete plans by July.

It still remains a question how much such government involvement will actually help beef up the travel business.

The two cochairmen of the working group are confident the governmental involvement can help marketing and media relations and bring the industries in both countries together in a coordinated way.

For example, according to Kirkland, they can develop a common-brand strategy to integrate various programs that have been done separately by different cities, states and airlines in both countries.

“It (the agreement) has created an umbrella, under which we have a reason to get together. When you get the support at the very top — the president and the prime minister — that really pulls people together,” Marriott said.

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