Uneasy tourists shun Japan amid radiation fears
Wednesday, March 23, 2011; 7:46 AM
TOKYO -- Images broadcast worldwide of Japan's crippled nuclear complex and reports of food and water contaminated by radiation have battered its reputation as a safe destination, triggering an avalanche of cancellations by foreign tourists.
Panwadee Pacharawanich, a mother of two in Bangkok, planned this year's family vacation at Tokyo Disneyland next month. But then Japan's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crises struck. Even though authorities insisted Tokyo was safe from radiation leaking from the damaged power plant in northeast Japan, she quickly switched destinations to Hong Kong.
"This was going to be my kids' first visit to Japan," said Panwadee, 38. "But when we heard about the radiation problem, we figured Japan wasn't the right place to visit."
In Ginza, a famous Tokyo shopping district, the foreign tourists who usually throng family-owned kimono stores and upmarket outlets like Prada are nowhere to be seen. The streets are plunged into gloom in the evening as lights are shut off early due to power shortages.
"Nobody is coming to the Ginza. It looks so empty now," said Tomie Kajiwara, a spokeswoman for Taya, a 125-year-old men's clothing store on Ginza's main thoroughfare.
No estimates of losses for airlines, hotels and other travel businesses have been announced. A Japanese tourism official, Atsuya Kawada, said that with emergency work at the Fukushima nuclear plant and quake relief still under way, it was too early to count the cost. The Cabinet announced Wednesday that disaster losses could reach $309 billion, while a spike in radiation levels in Tokyo tap water prompted a warning to not feed it to infants.
Shock waves are spreading through the global tourism industry as companies from Beijing to Bangkok to the United States and Europe lose profitable bookings for Japan. Outbound flights from Japan are packed as foreigners and some Japanese flee but planes fly in nearly empty.
The triple disaster of March 11's magnitude-9.0 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis has set back a Japanese government campaign to boost tourism to help shake off economic malaise. The timing is especially damaging, coming at the start of the peak spring travel season.
Japan received 8.6 million foreign tourists last year, up more than a quarter from 2009. The government hoped to boost that to 11 million this year, targeting China's new rich and other Asians with advertising featuring Japanese boy band Arashi. Ambitious plans called for raising tourist numbers to 30 million a year by 2020.
Japan's temples and hot springs have long attracted travelers but tourism took a back seat to manufacturing and exports in the postwar boom. Now, with growth anemic and the population graying, Prime Minister Naoto Kan says this insular society must open up.
The nation that sent a flood of free-spending tourists to the United States and Europe in the 1980s now promotes itself as a destination for skiing and golf. It appeals to young Asians who see it as a source of cool technology, fashion and pop culture rather than as a World War II aggressor.
Crucial sources of visitors include China, where rising incomes have set off a travel boom, and South Korea. Just over 1.4 million mainland Chinese visited Japan last year - second only in number to the 2.4 million South Korean visitors.