National

In aftermath of deadly rains, Hiroshima pins recovery hopes on tourism

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

A month after heavy rains lashed western Japan and disrupted railway systems in the region, communities and business owners in Hiroshima are hoping they can keep the crucial tourism industry afloat.

Hiroshima is at its peak around this time. Although the torrential rain in early July left over 100 people dead in the prefecture and damaged some of its tourist destinations, the central parts are still drawing visitors from across the nation and overseas.

Miyajima, a sacred island just a five-minute ferry ride from Hiroshima, was unaffected, a staffer at the Miyajima Tourist Association said Friday.

But damages across the city has been driving tourists away.

Kenji Kawanishi, who runs Tenryu Ryokan, a traditional inn in Minami Ward, lamented the cancellations and no-shows.

“Even today, we were waiting for a group of around six people, from Spain, as far as I remember,” he said Friday by telephone.

“Last year we didn’t experience anything like this, but this time people just didn’t show up,” he said with disappointment.

Although damage in the ward was relatively light compared with Asaminami, Asakita and Aki wards, nearly two dozen people were stuck at evacuation centers, as of Thursday.

The city of Higashihiroshima, which is home to the Mitsujo Tumulus burial grounds and Akikokubunji Temple, has seen a drop in visitors, city officials said.

But amid efforts to recover from flooding in some areas, volunteers have been arriving via shinkansen or bus from the city of Hiroshima to lend a helping hand with the cleanup.

“We’ll have to think about new strategies to bring tourists back, once we get the situation under control, but we’re still at the stage when recovery efforts are prioritized,” said an official from Higashihiroshima’s tourism promotion section who requested that his name be withheld. “But first we’re waiting for the Sanyo Line trains to resume service.”

Kieko Hirata of the Kure Tourism Association said tourists’ lack of awareness of the rain-damaged areas was also generating less than optimal conditions.

Hirata said the group has received inquiries from people, “presumably Chinese or Taiwanese,” asking about accessibility and transportation in the city and whether it is easy to get to neighboring areas.

“They were asking if it’s OK to visit,” Hirata said. “But some people come without checking whether their travel destination has been somehow affected (by the rains); they come to areas such as Okunoshima, dubbed ‘rabbit island,’ off the coast of Hiroshima and are disappointed with what they encounter,” Hirata said.

The Yamato Museum, which sits on the grounds of a Self-Defense Forces property in Kure, focuses on the scientific technology behind shipbuilding and steelmaking. It also features exhibitions on the battleship Yamato, which was built in Kure in 1941 and sunk by U.S. warplanes in the East China Sea during World War II.

“Last year between July 7 and 31, about 66,000 people visited the museum, but during the same period this year, the number of visitors barely exceeded 10,000 people, which is a significant drop,” the museum’s spokeswoman said Friday.

Heavy rains followed by floods and landslides in Hiroshima have resulted in road closures and the suspension of bus and railway services connecting it with neighboring cities. Some lines are expected to remain suspended at least until fall.

Although downtown Hiroshima was affected by the disaster, communities in mountainous areas of the city are still struggling with the aftermath.

Government estimates put the damage at about ¥53 billion, and the affected municipalities are pinning their hopes on tourism to rebuild.

The number of visitors to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, one of the most popular destinations, is down 28 percent from last year, said Masao Imatomi, manager of the city’s tourism planning section.

“The drop could result from many factors such as unusually high temperatures this summer, but the decrease is too large for that,” he noted.

But a 6 percent year-on-year rise in foreign visitors in July prompted him to speculate that the rain disaster may have sparked interest overseas, which could be good news.

“Although we don’t get inquiries directly, we’ve heard that operators of facilities across the city and railway operators have been receiving calls from foreign nationals about availability of services and opening hours,” Imatomi said.

Although the city has canceled some cultural events, tourism could support reconstruction efforts in the region, he said.

“These are hard times for promoters, but the more people who come the more money will be channeled to support the region,” he said. “Now the area is being hit a second time because lodging facilities and eateries, which are seeing fewer customers since the disaster, are losing money, which hurts the local economy.

“This may not be the right time to lure tourists, but first we want to assure people that Hiroshima is safe now, it’s recovering and is getting more accessible with the resumption of railway services,” Imatomi said. “So we hope more people will visit Hiroshima.”

On Sunday morning, tourists flocked to the city ahead of its annual memorial ceremony for the victims of the atomic bomb.

“People in France know about Hiroshima . . . Ground Zero, it’s a symbol,” said French tourist Herve Faucher, 39. He said there is considerable interest in the city’s history in France but that very few actually visit.

Jose Rodriguez, 27, a Basque from Spain, said Japanese people’s strong spirit for overcoming adversity sparked his interest.

“It’s very interesting to see that Japanese all have this ‘Let’s make peace, let’s remember but let’s not be angry about the world,’ ” attitude he said, noting that tragedies in other countries tend to divide them.

But he lamented that Hiroshima has become just another item to check off on many tourists’ bucket lists and an opportunity for selfies.