A project to lure Asian tourists, especially Chinese, to central Japan has resumed after delays caused by the territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing.

The “Dragon Route” project is being promoted by prefectures, municipalities and economic groups in the nine prefectures that make up the Chubu region — Nagano, Aichi, Shizuoka, Mie, Gifu, Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui and Shiga.

The Dragon Route Promotion Council says the project is so named because the tourist route “courses mysteriously through Japan like the swelling of a dragon’s body.” They also said the name is particularly appealing to Chinese.

In 2012, some 80 million Chinese traveled abroad, up 15 percent from the previous year, spending an estimated $85 billion. But only 1.4 million visited Japan, the Japan National Tourism Organization said.

“We can revitalize not only Chubu but also the whole of Japan if we can attract first-time visitors,” said Toshio Mita, chairman of the Chubu Economic Federation, which represents some 700 firms and 60 economic groups.

The project, which Mita heads, began in January 2012 to tell other countries in the region about sites, spa resorts, cuisine and other tourism resources in the Chubu region and to upgrade those facilities.

An event to promote the Dragon Route in Nagoya last September was canceled as political tensions climbed over the Senkaku Islands dispute. Although anti-Japanese sentiment in China has subsided a bit, it is still noticeable.

“We will be criticized if we openly promote tours to Japan,” said a travel agency executive in Shanghai. “For now, we cannot market group tours to Japan.”

Nevertheless, the Chubu and Hokuriku-Shinetsu district bureaus of the tourism ministry received high marks from travel agencies from Chinese cities that were invited to sample spots on the Dragon Route, including the village of Shirakawa-go in Gifu, a U.N. World Heritage site, and the city of Kanazawa in Ishikawa, where well-preserved samples of traditional buildings remain.

Noting that potential demand for tours is strong among affluent Chinese, Shigeyuki Nakamura, marketing manager in charge of the Chubu region at travel agency JTB Corp., said an improvement in bilateral ties will likely boost tourism if “name recognition is enhanced by joint public and private efforts.”

Chubu’s low name recognition is a major stumbling block. About 2.4 million tourists traveled the Dragon Route in 2012 compared with 7.6 million who flocked to Tokyo, the JTA said. And just over 3 million stayed in nearby Osaka.

The Chubu region appears in only about 9 percent of the major guidebooks overseas, according to the Central Japan Tourism Promotion Association, while tours to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka remain as popular as ever.

“Ordinary Chinese don’t know the name of Chubu in the first place,” said a Shanghai travel agency executive.

Travel officials in Chubu are therefore planning tours that link spots in the region to the Tokyo area and Kansai.

Chubu governors, politicians and business leaders meanwhile are making trips to China and Taiwan to promote the Dragon Route, which now involves over 400 entities, up from 256.

The council also intends to expand its marketing activities to Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

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