Aso village struggles to win back tourists a year after powerful quakes

JIJI, Kyodo

While many sightseeing spots in Kumamoto Prefecture are gradually winning back visitors a year after a series of powerful earthquakes rocked the region, one village has not been so lucky.

Aso, which is home to Mount Aso, once one of the most popular tourism destinations in the prefecture, is experiencing a slower recovery with transportation yet to be fully restored.

On April 14, 2016, a foreshock with a magnitude of 6.5 jolted Kumamoto Prefecture and nearby areas, registering lower 5, the fifth-highest on the Japanese intensity scale, in Aso. Two days later the magnitude-7.3 main shock struck, measuring lower 6.

Local officials are concerned that tourists believe Aso hasn’t recovered from the aftermath of the quakes and that it’s still dangerous to visit.

“There may be a firmly established image that the road to the city is congested, and the road to Mount Aso is dangerous due to damage from the earthquakes,” said Tatsuhiro Matsunaga, 53, an official at the Aso tourism association.

According to the tourism department at the municipal government, the number of visitors who stayed overnight or longer in the city stood at about 780,000 in 2015.

But the number is estimated to have plunged to about 510,000 in 2016, of which about 200,000 were people linked to post-disaster reconstruction work.

One big reason for the tourism slump may be the suspended trains and damaged roads leading to Aso.

The section of railway between Aso and Higo-Ozu stations on Kyushu Railway Co.’s Hohi Main Line remains suspended, preventing travel by train between the city of Aso and the city of Kumamoto, the prefectural capital.

Damage to National Route 57 has also yet to be fully repaired, with travel by car between the two cities requiring a detour. Last December, a prefectural road was opened, helping ease traffic congestion on the bypass.

Yet, tourist numbers have not recovered markedly.

In September 2016, New Kusasenri, which comprises a restaurant and shop at the scenic spot of Kusasenrigahama near the summit of the volcano, restarted operations.

But monthly sales stand at about one-sixth of what they were before the quakes.

In response, the facility cut staff numbers from 35 to 10, said Manager Yuichi Hamamoto, 39.

“Even on holidays, our daily sales sometimes total only ¥20,000, because tour buses don’t visit our facility,” he said. “Tourists from South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, who accounted for 80 percent of the visitors, have plummeted significantly.”

Before the quakes, Kumamoto had been enjoying a boost in tourists from overseas. In 2015, the number of foreign nationals who stayed overnight in Kumamoto was about 644,000, up 30 percent from the previous year.

The Aso municipal government is stepping up promotional activities to win back tourists.

Last month, the city showed a South Korean travel agency chief around Kusasenrigahama and other sightseeing spots.

“I’m sure that the travel agency chief had a good impression of our tourist attractions,” a municipal official said. “We want to start selling Aso tour products if regular flights to link Kumamoto Airport and South Korea are launched.”

The village of Aso is also making efforts to offer sufficient information to tourists, including new bus stops to replace suspended train services and signs showing information on detours at michi no eki roadside stations.

“We’re working to ensure that our customers touring the Aso region feel satisfied,” said Mihoko Shin, 50, head of the municipal tourism department. “We have enough capacity for accepting tourists, so we strongly hope to see many people visit Aso.”