• SHARE

More vacationers are heading for domestic destinations and fewer venturing overseas, in part due to the lingering impact of SARS and a slumping economy.

But travel agents are undaunted as they promote summer overseas tours, including chartered flights to Alaska, Iceland and more faraway lands.

And they are finding takers.

The industry is also gearing up to promote autumn travel abroad.

According to JTB Corp., domestic tourism is expected to see a 1.1 percent increase in travelers to 74.53 million during the July 15-Aug. 31 summer vacation period compared with last year. But the number of people traveling abroad is expected to log a 24.7 percent fall.

“There has been a shift from overseas to domestic travel, particularly to Okinawa, Hokkaido and Kyushu,” said Norio Torigoe, head of public relations at Nippon Travel Agency Co.

Nippon Travel’s sales of package tours to Hokkaido and Kyushu increased by around 25 percent in August from the same period last year, and Okinawa tours have enjoyed an increase of 70 percent, Torigoe said.

JTB spokesman Hiroshi Ueno attributed the increase in travelers to Okinawa to efforts by the local tourism industry to reduce hotel costs in the wake of the massive decline in tourists after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S.

In the Tohoku region, the December debut of the Hayate bullet train service connecting Aomori and Tokyo has helped attract visitors, especially to hot springs resorts, Ueno said.

But then there is the SARS factor.

According to an online survey conducted in June by the Internet research company MyVoice Communications Inc., 5 percent of the 12,789 respondents said the epidemic in other parts of Asia prompted them to drop plans to travel abroad and instead vacation domestically, 1 percent decided to pick another overseas destination instead of Asia and 2 percent canceled summer travel plans altogether.

JTB said package tours to Oceania, Hawaii and Europe have steadily picked up, but travelers to Hong Kong are expected to decline by 48.1 percent, those to Taiwan by 40.5 percent and to China by 35.1 percent year-on-year between July 15 and Aug. 31.

Amid the harsh business climate, however, some travel agents are increasingly looking to charter flights as a way to offer cheaper and better access to areas off the beaten airline path.

“We are seeing a charter flight boom,” said Torigoe of Nippon Travel, which instead of booking connecting flights out of Vancouver, British Columbia, or Seattle, has successfully sold charter flight package tours to Alaska at prices ranging from 140,000 yen, roughly half the price of ordinary package tours to the state.

Airlines have meanwhile been accommodating. Having drastically reduced regularly scheduled flights due to the drop in demand amid the SARS scare and global economic slump, they have increased charter operations to make use of idle aircraft, according to airline and travel agency officials.

Kinki Nippon Tourist Co. has been promoting package tours on 117 direct charter flights between Japan and 10 destinations, including Calgary, Alberta; Alice Springs, Australia; Vladivostok, Russia; and Iceland.

“We are expecting more than 10,000 people to take these package tours” by the end of September, Kinki Nippon spokeswoman Eiko Sato said.

Overseas travel worries continue, however. The deadly car-bombing of a Jakarta hotel earlier this month came as a chilling reminder of terrorism. And SARS may resurface as cold weather approaches.

But travel agents have high hopes as they get ready to start autumn campaigns.

Kinki Nippon is organizing package tours to take in live performances by pop singer Yumi Matsutoya in Hong Kong in October, and JTB is working with authorities and businesses in Beijing and Hong Kong, areas hard hit by the SARS epidemic, to wage campaigns to woo tourists back.

Industry officials hope younger people, including working women and college students, will make last-minute reservations for package tours abroad by the end of September. They also hope to see more middle-aged and elderly overseas travelers.

“The most important thing for our travel promotion campaigns is to provide a sense of security to Japanese tourists, who tend to be very cautious about traveling abroad when things go wrong,” an executive at a major Japanese airline said. “Once more tourists start traveling abroad again, we believe many others will follow suit, as Japanese tend to act in concert.”

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)