Last month, with travel to Japan near an all-time low, I was part of a group of media and tour operator representatives who met with top officials at the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) in Tokyo. The goal of the meetings was to gather input on a plan to restore the country’s inbound tourism following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that hit the country on March 11 of this year.
At the meeting, Yasuto Kawarabayashi, director of international tourism promotion for the JTA, shared staggering statistics that showed that travel to Japan had plummeted by more than 50 percent each month from March to May of this year, compared to the same time last year. Overall, travel to Japan was down more than 30 percent for the first part of this year (Jan.-May) compared to the same time the previous year, and travel from the U.S. was also down 30 percent compared to the same period last year.
While much of the infrastructure damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami is well on the way to being repaired — including the restoration of rail service throughout the country — officials acknowledged that travel to Japan is suffering due to lingering concern over the radiation caused by the malfunction at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Kawarabayashi shared with attendees the latest radiological monitoring data, which showed that Tokyo’s radiation levels are well within normal levels and are, in fact, lower than those found in such major cities as New York, Berlin, Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Taipei and Seoul.
Despite this data, as well as monitoring by third-party groups such as the World Health Organization, travelers are still wary, Kawarabayashi said.
“Unfortunately, the whole Japanese government is in the middle of a credibility crisis,” he said. “But the situation with the reactor is very complicated and it’s difficult for the average person to understand. That’s probably adding to the problem.”
In fact, the only indication that something was out of the ordinary, was the fact that the air conditioning in the meeting room was not quite as low as it would have been otherwise in an effort to save power.
For about an hour, the Japanese tourism officials then discussed promotion plans with the tour industry delegation, which included NTA chairman Cathy Greteman, Laudie Hanou of Sita World Tours, who was representing the USTOA, and several other NTA and USTOA members.
One of the primary promotions the JTA is currently utilizing to spur travel to Japan came from celebrities and notable personalities recording their own impressions of their visits to Japan, and sharing those videos on websites such as YouTube. Kawarabayashi said these videos were initiated by the celebrities themselves, which made the videos even more meaningful. According to the JTA, testimonials from celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Jennifer Hudson, along with foreign leaders, were showing positive results so far.
The JTA is also conducting consumer surveys in 15 key markets in order to better assess traveler attitudes.
As the meeting concluded, the JTA officials said they had plans to bring travel agents to Japan to gather feedback, as well as to show them that the country was once again ready for visitors.
“The United States is the fourth largest inbound market for Japan, and the top four countries account for 75 percent of all inbound tourism,” Kawarabayashi said. “So clearly this is a problem we want to improve.”