Japan struggles to attract tourists

Correction: This article about Japan’s tourism industry incorrectly said that Frommer’s had decided not to publish a 2012 Tokyo guidebook. Frommer’s never canceled its plans for a 2012 volume and is working on it now.

Beth Reiber, the freelance writer responsible for the set of Frommer’s guidebooks on Japan, felt lucky just to get on the plane. Her editors had canceled plans to publish a Tokyo guidebook for 2012, thinking it didn’t make sense to spend all that money to publish a book that nobody would buy.

But Reiber pushed back and gave them the same message that Japan is struggling to give the world: Tokyo remains radiation-free and just as safe as always.

The plane from Minneapolis to Tokyo was “packed,” Reiber said, “and I was thinking, ‘That’s great. People are coming to Japan.’ Then we arrived at Narita [airport in Tokyo], and about 30 people got off the plane. The rest went on to Vietnam.”

Although the triple catastrophe of three months ago caused its most acute damage along Japan’s northeastern coast, it changed the image of the entire country, with millions across the globe following the news and concluding that one of the world’s safest nations was no longer so.

Much of this is founded on misperception: A region was battered, not all of Japan. But the March 11 disaster has dealt a severe blow to a tourism industry the nation had been counting on to help offset static domestic consumer demand due to a shrinking population. Tourism and its secondary industries contributed 5.3 percent to Japan’s gross domestic product and accounted for 4.3 million jobs in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the government-run Japan Tourism Agency.

Now, when Japanese officials speak about a brisk recovery powered by necessary reconstruction spending, they acknowledge that the tourism industry could face a particularly long-term setback amid lingering fears about radiation, food safety and the possibility of future quakes.

“Everybody else in the world thinks Japan is saturated with radiation,” said Zensuke Suzuki, an international travel executive at the Japan Tourism Agency. “And we can try to convince people otherwise, but whatever Japan itself says, people won’t really trust.”

Amid the ongoing nuclear crisis, Japanese travel officials have not tried to calculate the effect on foreign tourism. But eventually they will promote not just Tokyo but also major cities such as Kyoto and Osaka that are farther from the disaster zone. They will also promote travel to the tsunami­-battered Tohoku region, in the hopes that tourism can boost its ailing economy.

Radiation fears

Japan’s travel agencies used to base their campaigns on postcard images: geishas, white-capped mountains, plates of sushi. Buses docked every afternoon along the main shopping streets in Tokyo’s ritzy Ginza district, depositing Chinese tourists who thronged department stores that had signs in Mandarin and ATMs from Beijing-based banks. The Japanese government designated 2011 as a benchmark year for tourism, hoping for the first time to exceed 10 million international travelers.

Now, the Japan National Tourism Organization posts radiation levels from around the world on its Web site. (Most days, Seoul has twice the background radiation that Tokyo does.) In April, the number of tourists visiting Japan was down 62.5 percent from the same month last year, and a comparable decline was expected for May, though statistics have not been released. Airlines have slashed flights. Small-hotel owners fear for their businesses. New York’s Metropolitan Opera came recently to Japan for a three-week tour, but two of its superstar singers backed out at the last moment because of radiation concerns.

For celebrities who do come to Japan, their mere arrival sometimes doubles as a sign of solidarity and hope. Despite reported fears among his crew members, pop star Justin Bieber kept his plans for two Japan shows, in Osaka and Tokyo. “Like I said . . . we are going to JAPAN! #supportjapan,” he tweeted May 8. Ten days later, he was at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, posing for photos with nine schoolchildren from Tohoku.

“Justin, I just want to tell you how much we admire you and appreciate you coming here to Japan,” U.S. Ambassador John V. Roos told the singer. “You’re a very special young man, sending a message to the entire world.”

In a way, Japan is depending on outsiders — celebrities, travel writers and government officials — to reassure foreigners. The United States recommends that its citizens avoid travel within a 50-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, but on May 16 it relaxed the restriction slightly, advising that people could safely use the bullet-train line and the Tohoku expressway, which cut through the no-go zone.

When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited the Daiichi facility last month during a trilateral summit, they ate locally grown cherries and cucumbers, and both pledged to help Japan’s tourism industry recover. A week later, a 100-member delegation of Chinese travel officials visited Japan.

“Having [Wen] come, that has had an enormous effect,” said Shinya Kurosawa, an executive at JTB, the largest travel agency in Japan. “But nothing will improve drastically overnight. There hasn’t been any proof to say that there has been an end to the radiation danger, and that has a lot of impact on the consumer psychology.”

Few foreign faces

For Reiber, the travel writer, this latest trip to Japan has underscored the depth of that impact. Every day, she picks a neighborhood, touring hotel rooms, double-checking restaurant menus, asking about operating hours. On her first day, in Tokyo’s Ueno neighborhood, she saw “four foreigners total.” When she visited one branch of the Sakura guesthouse, a worker there said it was catering to a domestic clientele and offering cheaper prices.

Reiber has been coming here for almost 30 years, starting in 1983 — Japan’s economic-powerhouse years, when the country didn’t need tourists and didn’t try to get them. After spending several months here in 2009, compiling the 10th edition of the Frommer’s Japan travel guidebook, she wrote about the way in which the nation’s recession had forced the beginning of the tourist industry. She wrote about 100-yen stores and lunch deals at upscale restaurants. She wrote that “virtually every prefecture” is “trying to figure out how to lure more international travelers.”

On Monday, Reiber spent several hours walking through the Akasaka area, a salaryman-friendly neighborhood of office buildings and lunchtime eating spots. At the exclusive Hotel Okura, a luxury spot for foreigners, she asked whether the hotel was still offering its afternoon tea service and free shuttle bus. Reiber took notes.

“International guests — do you have fewer now?” Reiber asked.

“It’s half of what it was,” one employee told her.

“Is it getting better?”

“Yes. Slowly.”

A few hours later, Reiber talked about the ways in which Tokyo feels dimmer, cheaper, more homogenous. She still isn’t sure how her Frommer’s guide will address radiation concerns. Until a few years ago, she said, the guidebook included an entry for the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s free museum, an eight-floor center with displays about energy history and the safety of nuclear power. She said she eventually deleted the entry, because the museum appeared like a shameless company advertisement.

The museum closed May 31.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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