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Many foreign tourists still steering clear of Tohoku region

Publication Date : 29-06-2012


Many foreign tourists are avoiding trips to the disaster-hit prefectures of Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi due to lingering concerns about radioactive contamination and fears that another major earthquake or tsunami could strike the Tohoku region.

The number of tourists to the prefectures plunged after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Although Japanese visitors have gradually returned in growing numbers, the same cannot be said for visitors from overseas. The number of foreigners staying overnight in the prefectures nose-dived to about 90,000 in 2011 from about 330,000 in 2010.

It likely will take more time before visitor numbers return to the level seen before the March 11, 2011, disaster. Most notably, China and South Korea--which account for about 40 per cent of tourists to Japan--still advise their citizens to refrain from traveling to areas hit by last year's earthquake and tsunami.

On average, about 100,000 foreign tourists visited Fukushima Prefecture each year, including more than 40,000 South Koreans who came to play golf.

Flights between Fukushima Airport and Incheon Airport near Seoul, which were suspended after the disaster, have not resumed.

According to the Fukushima prefectural government, a group of 60 South Korean tourists came to play golf in the prefecture in May--the first group since the disaster.

"Unless flights from South Korea resume, the number of customers won't increase," said Masami Midorikawa, owner of the Shin-Shirakawa Golf Club in Shirakawa, Fukushima Prefecture. "Although private companies are getting the word out that [most of the] prefecture is safe to visit, there's only so much they can do. I hope the central and prefectural governments will provide detailed explanations" to reassure potential tourists.

While many countries advise their citizens to avoid only the area within 20 kilometres of Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, South Korea still recommends its people refrain from visiting the entire prefecture. As a result, the number of South Korean tourists to Fukushima between April and December in 2011 dropped to just about 1,600.

China also recommends its citizens stay away from the prefecture and other areas hit hard by the disaster.

According to a preliminary estimate by the Japan Tourism Agency, about 20.5 million people--including Japanese and foreigners--stayed overnight in the three prefectures in 2011.

Many of these people apparently were engaged in reconstruction work, and the figure was up by about 1.2 million from 2010.

However, the number of foreigners staying overnight in the prefectures dropped to about 90,000 in 2011, down about 70 per cent from the previous year.

Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, is famed for its scenic islets and is one of Tohoku's biggest tourist magnets.

About 9,000 visitors from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere stayed in Matsushima in 2010. In 2011, only about 1,000 came.

According to a union of pleasure boat operators who make tours around Matsushima islands, about 200 foreign tourist groups boarded these boats each year before the disaster, but only 40 groups did between January and June this year.

"There are also hardly any individual foreign tourists on our boats. They apparently are afraid not only of radioactive contamination but also of another earthquake and tsunami," said Kazuhiko Mano, director of the union.

A tourist information centre for foreigners in front of JR Matsushima-Kaigan Station has seen its visitors plunge by about 85 per cent.

"While the number of Japanese tourists has recovered to 70 per cent of the figure before the quake, the number of foreign tourists remains small," said an official at the Matsushima Tourist Association, which operates the centre.

It is a similar story in Iwate Prefecture.

Coastal areas are reporting only a handful of foreign visitors.

A tourism association of Miyako in the prefecture plans to set up an English website this fiscal year to try to attract more foreign tourists and publicise progress made in the recovery from the earthquake and tsunami.

"If foreigners who visit coastal areas tell other people that it's safe to come here, that can help our reconstruction efforts," said Hitoshi Matsudate, head of the commercial and tourism section at the Miyako municipal government.

Govt in promotion efforts

The central government is trying to encourage foreign tourists to return to disaster-hit areas.

The Japan Tourism Agency and nine prefectures in Tohoku and northern Kanto held promotion events in nine overseas cities such as Beijing and Hong Kong during the six months up to November.

"By holding business meetings, we hope to encourage participants to plan tours to Japan," an official at the agency's International Tourism Promotion Division said.

The Foreign Ministry will issue multiple-entry visas for individual Chinese tourists who plan to travel to Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures from July.

The visa holders can enter Japan as many times as desired over a three-year period.

Under the government's "Cool Japan" campaign strategy to promote the nation, the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry plans to export craft products and food culture distinct to the disaster-hit areas.

The ministry has chosen enterprises that applied to be part of the project, and is considering what products will be exported. The ministry will open an antenna shop in London in July, and plans to hold promotional events in China, Taiwan, India and France.

"We hope to unearth products that will appeal to foreigners and generate more interest in Tohoku," a ministry official in charge of the project said.


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