In March 2011, the number of visitors to Japan was 352,000, a drop of 50% compared to March 2010. Even in western Japan, which has not been affected, the major tourist facilities reported a 10-30 % drop in visitor numbers. More than 60% do not expect tourism to recover until autumn, at the earliest.
“Our business is way down,” said Hiro Machida, who owns Nichibei Travel in Tokyo. “We received cancelations for all of our tours that were scheduled after March 11.”
According to Japan’s Tourist Agency, as of April 12, 360,000 people had canceled their hotel reservations in the Kanto region, including in Tokyo, after the crisis. If the number of visitors continues to drop, the government will consider giving financial aid to hotels and ryokans (traditional inns).
In Asakusa, a district in Tokyo that has preserved an atmosphere of the old Tokyo and is famous for its Sensoji Temple, built in the 7th century, there were only about 500 to 600 visitors each day during the cherry blossom season. Before March 11, at least 3,000 people, including foreigners, would come every day at that time. “There were hardly any foreigners this year,” Machida said.
Jia-Liang Wang, who works at Executive Travel in Tokyo, says that except for the Chinese who must travel to Japan for business, his colleagues in Shanghai have also canceled their reservations to Japan. Instead, he says, they are going to Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore or around that area.
The Chinese are the biggest group visiting Japan. In March, there were about 53% fewer Taiwanese, 49% fewer Mainland Chinese, 47% fewer Koreans and 45% fewer U.S. visitors.
“The Chinese read in the media that there is radiation in Tokyo,” Wang said. “This strongly affects people, and why should they take any risks? Even the Japanese are worried about the current situation: they don’t want to eat or drink anything from the affected areas. There are about 6 prefectures in the Tohoku region.”
Additionally, for the Chinese, Tokyo is Japan. Even if the tour goes to Osaka or Okinawa, Tokyo has to be included or they won’t come, Wang noted.
Wang predicted that sightseers will not return to Japan for at least 6 months and that the number will be even lower in April than in March.
Koyasu, a spokesman for Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), said they are working hard to bring back tourists by providing them with accurate information.
“For example, because Japan raised the severity level of the crisis at the Fukushima plant from 5 to 7, people are afraid to come,” he said. This puts it on par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster — even though according to the Tokyo Electric Company, owner and Fukushima plant operator, it is one-tenth the level of Chernobyl.
“It’s not in all of Japan, and traveling to Japan is safe,” Koyasu said.
JNTO is sending out information through its Web site,Twitter, Facebook, IATA (International Air Transport Association), ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) and press releases saying, “Japan is safe.”
The last time Japan saw a drop in tourism was in 2003 when tourists were turned off by the SARS outbreak. The Great Hanshin Kobe earthquake of 1995 resulted in a 6.3 drop in visitors but after about 10 months, Japan totally recovered.
“As long as we can’t give confidence to people about the radiation being emitted, we can’t bring the tourists back,” Koyasu said. Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan said it would take about 3 months to control the radiation problem.
“The image is that Japan is a very scary place,” Koyasu said. “If the government and safety agency do not control the problems at the Fukushima plant, the present situation will continue.”