Page last updated at 02:30 GMT, Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Quake-hit Japan entices tourists back

By Carmen Roberts and Alex Hudson
BBC Fast Track

A Buddhist statue lies on the ground at the quake-hit Koganji temple in Iwate prefecture on 18 April 2011
Tourist revenue has taken a big hit since the 11 March earthquake and tsunami

With tourism revenue in Japan falling by a third since the earthquake and tsunami, the government is looking at ways - including free flights - of attracting visitors back.

On 11 March Japan was hit by its most powerful earthquake since records began. The quake and subsequent tsunami led to almost 16,000 deaths. Nearly 5,000 people are still missing.

But with the human tragedy came an economic problem, with tourism dropping sharply.

In April 2011, tourism numbers fell by over 60% compared to the year before. They are yet to recover to pre-tsunami levels, despite a new 12.1tn yen ($157bn; £100bn) budget for the reconstruction.

The disaster even had a significant knock-on effect in other countries, with fewer Japanese tourists travelling abroad.

The Tokyo Sky Tree
The Tokyo Sky Tree will be a major attraction when it opens in 2012

In the weeks after the tsunami, Kasikorn Research Centre predicted £650m of Thailand's tourism revenue would be lost because of the situation in Japan.

Eight months on, life in Japan's capital seems back on track.

Construction on the Tokyo Sky Tree is proceeding - when it is finished in May 2012, it will be the tallest broadcast tower in the world and the second tallest building, after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

"The tower was hardly damaged at all as a result of the earthquake," says Shigeru Yoshino, one of the architects of the building. "In the aftermath, the tower showed the flag of Japan and was an encouragement."

But even now, some tourism boards are still a little reluctant to recommend Japan as a holiday destination.

Around 1.5bn yen (£12.3m) has been set aside by the government to dispel "harmful rumours" about the current situation and radiation risks.

"We have no problem with transport or food products," says Hiroo Nagasawa, general manager of the five-star Hyatt Regency hotel in Tokyo.

"Basically Tokyo is back to normal but I don't know if the message has got out to foreign countries yet."

Travel advice

The Japan National Tourist Organisation predicts that tourism revenues will be a third lower in 2011 than they were in 2010.

Aftermath of the Japanese tsunami and earthquake
Japan is investing heavily in recovery plans following the tsunami

And this is a problem for a country targeting tourism as a growth industry so aggressively.

The government has a road map, devised before the tsunami, towards reaching 30 million international visitors each year.

This is around the same figure as UK, which currently stands as the 6th most popular destination in the world.

Japan hopes to reach the 25 million mark by 2019.

"The government let people know [about Japan] via social networks like Twitter and Facebook, because there are many countries that had very strict travel advice to their citizens without accurately knowing the situation in Japan," said Masato Takamatsu, of Japan Tourism Marketing Co.

"I think those efforts have worked very well and the international community knows that Japan is well prepared to invite people again."

But if the message that Japan is open for business once more is getting out, is there another problem?

Free flights

A significant issue for Japan's tourism plans could be the strength of its currency.

The uncertainty about the global economy has led to large investments in the Yen - traditionally seen as a safe-bet - and meant it has reached record highs.

I would like to use my position here today and all week long to run around Tokyo and enjoy the beautiful city
Lady Gaga

This means that those travelling to Japan generally have to pay more for flights and accommodation and, for a country not traditionally seen as a cheap option, could cause more visitors to stay away.

And this is something that the government is trying to change.

Media reports recently jumped on the suggestion that 10,000 free return flights would be offered to tourists willing to write about their experiences.

While this initiative would only be from April 2012 and is still awaiting government budgetary approval, it shows how important re-invigorating tourism is for the country.

Japan has so far been reluctant to offer financial incentives to tourists. Thailand, for example, offered free insurance cover and a waiver on all visa fees in the wake of the 2010 protests.

Instead, the Japanese government has embarked on a public relations campaign.

Tokyo skyline
According to residents, Tokyo is back running as normal after the tsunami

It presented Lady Gaga with a letter of thanks after she visited the country for an MTV Video Music Aid event at which she said everyone should visit the "beautiful place" of Japan.

And the likes of US fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger and French singer and actress Jane Birkin have given their top travel tips for the book The Travel Guide to Aid Japan.

"I think when opinion leaders make a statement that Japan is safe, a lot of the people will feel the same way," says travel journalist Chieko Chiba.

"However these efforts are more of a temporary thing and I think more ground work and a grassroots effort needs to be continued."

One thing that has recovered is Japanese tourists travelling overseas.

The numbers travelling are expected to be almost identical to one year ago and in fact rose year-on-year by 9% in August, according to official figures.

It seems that while the international travelling community is not quite ready to re-embrace Japan, the Japanese people themselves have adopted a "back to normal" sentiment.

And tourism does have a natural ebb and flow going back further than the tragedy in March.

In 2009, the global economic slowdown and worries about the spread of influenza led to tourism falling throughout that year.

The Japanese are just hoping that, while tourism is not quite back to normal yet, it is just a matter of time before it is.

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