TOKYO, Japan — Already burdened by the triple calamity of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear misadventure, Japan now faces a tourist meltdown as visitor numbers have halved since the March quake.
Japan’s difficulty, however, is proving to be the traveler’s opportunity.
Hotels have slashed their rates in a bid to draw back some of the 8.6 million people that visited in 2010.
Numbers were down drastically March to June, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) but are picking up slightly.
An estimated 433,100 foreign tourists visited Japan in June, down 36.0 percent from a year earlier but slower than the previous three months' year-on-year falls of more than 50 percent, says the government.
In May, the number of visitors plunged 50.4 percent from May 2010, said JNTO. In April the total dropped by a record 62.5 percent. July figures were not yet available.
While business travel appears to be picking up in the months since, radiation fears are still keeping tourists away.
Despite the Fukushima disaster, Japan and international agencies insist Japan outside of the stricken nuclear plant’s no-go zone is safe. As safe as any other developed country.
"We want people to be aware that Japan has bounced back from this disaster incredibly quickly and the people of Japan want visitors to come back," said a spokeswoman for JNTO. "We are optimistic we’ll see visitors numbers start to pick back up."
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Lady Gaga visited recently to prove these islands are still a viable destination and give post-March-11 Japan a boost. The government, too, is trying to convince the world Japan is safe and is inviting people over for free to see for themselves.
All of Japan seems to be affected by the turnoff, even in top tourist magnets such as Kyoto, far west of the feared Fukushima radiation that is, rightly or wrongly, keeping many away from Japan.
“As half of our clients are usually overseas guests we’ve seen significant cancellations since March,” said general manager of the Hyatt Regency Kyoto, Ken Yokoyama. "Now it’s our job to persuade people most of Japan is safe and help them understand there is security and safety here still in Kyoto.”
As a sweetener, particularly for those with children who seem most reluctant to travel to Japan, the Hyatt Kyoto like many luxury hotels in the country is now making big discounts.
The Preferred Hotel Group Japan, which includes Tokyo’s Hotel New Otani, is also proffering rooms at a heavily discounted 10,000 yen ($127) a night — down from around 30,000 yen.
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The government, working through Japan Tourism Agency (JTA), is increasingly desperate to stress to the world the majority of Japan is safe from radiation, including welcoming Lady Gaga, who was in Japan recently for a charity concert benefiting victims of the disasters.
“It’s important that we remind the world that Japan is now safe, that the doors are wide open,” she told reporters in Tokyo, adding: “This is one of my most favourite places on earth.”
A small trickle of tourists back to savor the delights of a country that for many was already tantalizingly shrouded in mystery, seems to agree that for the moment there is nothing that should stop visitors returning.
Some of the bargains currently on offer don’t hurt either considering the yen is now historically high against most foreign currencies.
“If I’m honest, I felt a lot of fear. Not so much from the earthquakes, but fear of radiation,” says Helen Metcalfe, who visited Japan recently from Manchester in the UK and took up an offer for a 1,000 yen ($13) a night stay, guest of the B hotel chain. Shortly before, the same room would have cost 8,000 yen.
“The news in England blew it out of proportion and created that fear, but the special offer definitely helped make my decision in staying there.”
Despite similar generosity shown towards some foreign travellers in the past and the promise of warm welcomes in some quarters, Japan was already struggling to attract visitors before the quake.
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Japan ranks only 30th globally and 7th within Asia in terms of visitor numbers according to official figures with less than 10 million visitors per year. France leads with a massive 79 million visitors annually.
“Japan has never done a great job of marketing itself. It's a fantastic and fascinating travel destination that at times has seemed uninterested in attracting tourists,” says Japan-based public relations consultant Roberto De Vido.
“Lady Gaga is correct. It is perfectly safe to come here but the government and JNTO don't make a serious effort to attract tourists. A more aggressive approach may be needed. How dangerous is a holiday in Japan [one of the world's safest countries] really? Let's put our cards on the table, Japan.”