MATSUSHIMA, MIYAGI PREF. - Delicious food, beautiful landscapes and hot springs are some of the highlights for visitors to Tohoku, a region still recovering from the disasters of 2011.
Tohoku’s attractions have drawn people from across Japan but so far have largely failed to lure foreign tourists, even though other parts of the country are enjoying an unprecedented tourism boom.
With the Upper House election set for July 10, expanding inbound tourism is something Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party can claim to have accomplished.
Political parties see tourism as a key pillar of the nation’s growth strategy, with the LDP aiming for 40 million foreign tourists in 2020, a doubling of present levels, while the opposition Democratic Party has vowed to use tourism to energize regional economies.
But there seems to be a long way to go before the benefits reach Tohoku.
“Before the quake, it was difficult to find Japanese tourists because there were so many tourists from Taiwan and China. But now I see only a few,” said 65-year-old Chiyoshi Ikeda, who works in a restaurant near Matsushima Bay in Miyagi Prefecture.
Yasuko Daiguji, 43, who runs a souvenir shop in the same area, agrees. “On news reports, I hear inbound demand is soaring, but here it’s completely different,” she said.
Matsushima, a coastal district dotted with small islands, has been designated as one of the three most scenic spots in Japan. It is recommended by the Michelin travel guide as a three-star destination and is also home to a historic Zen temple.
The area was among those hit by the tsunami on March 11, 2011, but the damage was limited because the 260 or so small islands helped to break the water’s force, according to an official in the town of Matsushima.
Tourists visiting Matsushima are now at 80 percent of the pre-tsunami level, but the figure is disappointing considering that five years have passed since the disaster and that sightseeing spots outside Tohoku are benefiting from the tourism boom.
Thanks to the weaker yen, which aids foreign visitors, and the easing of visa requirements for the nationals of some Asian countries, the number of foreign visitors who stayed in hotels in the country last year expanded 2.3-fold from 2010 to 61 million, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
But those who stayed at lodgings in the six prefectures of Tohoku accounted for less than 1 percent of the total.
“The region has not benefited from inbound demand at all,” said agency official Takeshi Hirabayashi, adding that the poor figure reflects “prolonged reputational damage” caused by the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear disaster.
But Hirabayashi said that is not the only reason. The region has a low profile outside Japan and the government has been focusing on reconstruction rather than promoting tourism.
Not many foreign tourists could be seen in Matsushima one day in mid-June, though there were many buses for Japanese school trips and group tours.
Beijing resident Eric Lyu, 33, one of the few tourists from abroad, said he enjoyed the “very good seafood, weather and landscape” but was heading to Tokyo soon as he knew little of the Tohoku region.
Taiwanese Fan Kai-ping, 46, who took an excursion to Matsushima during a business trip, said he had visited other parts of Japan more than 10 times as he often sees information about Tokyo and Osaka on television.
Fan believes it is a lack of infrastructure, not the disaster, that accounts for the low number of foreign tourists in Tohoku.
“It’s easy to go to Tokyo and Osaka to enjoy the food and shopping because people speak Chinese and English,” Fan said.
In a bid to improve the situation, a group of Tohoku firms this year got together to try to develop sightseeing resources for foreign nationals.
Ryota Saito, chief executive officer of Sendai-based Visit Tohoku Inc., which is leading the initiative, said the region must first motivate local people to try new things.
He said the long-term lack of inbound visitors has left tourism providers unaware of what foreigners want. “But there are certainly business opportunities,” he said, citing the region’s many attractions.
The companies are working on specially tailored events for foreign tourists such as cherry blossom tours in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture.
They aim to attract independent travelers for extended tours in Tohoku, Saito said.
“The key to success is wide-range cooperation, as just one town or single prefecture making efforts wouldn’t do any good,” Saito said. “We cannot win in the global arena unless we have a broader perspective to market our Tohoku brand.”