As Japanese tourists put the events of Sept. 11 behind them and once again hit the package tour trail, one destination remains suspiciously absent from their itineraries: the United States.

The past few months have seen a recovery in overseas travel by Japanese tourists, according to a number of travel agencies, citing figures of around 80 percent to 90 percent of those seen in the same period a year earlier.

But the U.S. mainland has seen only 50 percent to 60 percent of the previous year’s number of visitors.

Alarmed by the recent trend, the U.S. and Japan concluded a bilateral tourism pact in April and created a tourism promotion council made up of people in the travel industry.

Council members from both countries will meet in Tokyo on Friday to prepare for the first semiannual meeting, to be held in the fall, to discuss ways to boost bilateral tourism.

Many in the industry, however, believe Sept. 11 is not to blame, and that the downtrend simply indicates the U.S. is no longer a popular destination for Japanese vacationers.

“I don’t think the fear (of terrorism) still remains,” said Minoru Sasada, a key member of the newly established tourist promotion council. “Many people (in the travel industry) believe the U.S. has lost its appeal (as a tourist destination), and I agree.

“It’s true that many people (in the industry) feel package tours to (the U.S. mainland) have run up against a brick wall,” said Sasada, who is also assistant general manager for outbound travel at the Japan Association of Travel Agents, the nation’s largest umbrella group for the industry.

After peaking at 5.37 million in 1997, the number of Japanese travelers to the U.S. mainland gradually decreased in 1998 and 1999, increasing only slightly to 5.06 million in 2000. In 2001, visitors fell to 4.12 million.

Despite sales campaigns and cheaper air fares, demand has not returned in the nine months since the attacks.

According to JATA statistics, overseas package tours run by the nation’s top five travel agencies had recovered to 83.6 percent of the previous year’s level in March, with travelers to Asia recovering to 92 percent and those going to Europe at 88.2 percent.

But those who chose North America as their destination were at only 45.7 percent of the previous year’s level. Hawaii was the exception, at 89.7 percent.

Hideaki Izutsu, deputy general manager of marketing and sales at JTB World Vacation Inc., a package tour unit of JTB Corp., said capricious young female tourists, who used to be the main targets of package tours to the U.S., are staying at home amid the prolonged economic slump.

However, customers who have a clear travel purpose, such as studying English abroad, have been unfazed by the terror attacks, he said.

Before Sept. 11, travel bureaus focused heavily on Las Vegas and theme parks, including California’s Universal Studios and Florida’s Disney World, to lure Japanese to the U.S.

However, such tactics no longer appear to be working, as young Japanese can now find comparable theme parks at home. Industry sources agree, saying last year’s opening of popular American theme parks DisneySea in Chiba Prefecture and Universal Studio Japan in Osaka may have discouraged people from visiting the U.S.

“Tour packages from the Kansai region to Universal Studio (in the U.S.) have decreased to a quarter of the previous level,” said Takayuki Fukuoka, package tour manager at Kinki Nippon Tourist Co., the nation’s No. 2 travel agency. “There has definitely been an impact in the Kansai region.”

Izutsu of JTB added that the preferences of Japanese travelers have also diversified, and theme parks may no longer hold their appeal.

A glance at a JTB brochure outlining overseas package tours backs Izutsu’s observation. Nowadays, all tours come with a number of optional tours, and more are being added each year.

Industry insiders say this is especially true for the U.S., as people are more informed about the attractions on offer there and often visit with a list of must-see places.

To cope with tourists’ diversifying needs, JTB increased the number of brochures for overseas package tours to 21 in the first half of 2002 from 14 in the last half of 2001.

Izutsu of JTB World believes that by meeting travelers’ specific needs and offering products based on those needs, Japanese tourists can be lured back to the U.S. mainland.

For example, JTB is now offering a package tour for families to the U.S. West. Participants travel across Utah, Nevada and Arizona in camper vans for six days.

Kinki Nippon is preparing to launch a new tour around San Francisco, where it is relatively easy for travelers to move around by foot and by rail.

“People no longer prefer tour programs with few patterns,” Sasada of JATA said. “They now prefer to decide their own destinations by themselves.”

Sasada said travel agencies must come up with new sales strategies based on a long-term perspective, adding that there is no easy route to a quick recovery.

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