Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tokyo Tourism On The Brink

CNN: In the cavernous lobby of the Tokyu Hotel in Tokyo, executives sip $14 coffees, crisply dressed waiters hover with English-language menus and bilingual reception clerks wait patiently for incoming guests. All that's missing are the foreigners in this five-star Shibuya landmark that normally hosts tens of thousands of overseas visitors every year.

A lone American couple says they nearly cancelled their trip. "Our daughter is teaching here -- it if wasn't for that, we wouldn't have come," explains John Heddens, who waits in the lobby with his wife, Mindy, for the airport shuttle . "My concern is that the government doesn't seem to be forthcoming about the radiation."

More than eight weeks since the March 11 mega-quake sparked Japan's worst crisis since World War II, tourism is still on its knees. The number of foreign guests staying at the Tokyu is down by half, according to its marketing manager Takayuki Yamano -- a pattern repeated throughout Japan. "I've been here for 10 years and we've been through 9/11 and SARS and this is by far the worst," he explains.

Just three months ago, the Japan Tourism Agency was predicting a bumper crop, with over 9 million people forecast to visit the country in 2011 -- up from 8.6 million in 2010. Statistics from March, the latest available, suggest that figure is not remotely attainable. Year-on-year figures for the month were down by 50.3%, with the number of foreign travelers plummeting from 679,500 to 352,800.

The crisis has had an impact on domestic travel too. Japan's Travel Bureau Foundation (TBF) reported outbound flows down by 18% in March. And Japan Airlines said its Golden Week figures for international and domestic routes fell by 26% and 24% respectively, compared to the same period in 2010.

What all this means, of course, apart from a rough ride for the industry in 2011, is that there are potential bargains for travelers. Like many hotels in the capital, Tokyu has cut its weekend prices for rooms. Some travel bureaus report promotions offering return Tokyo flights from parts of Asia for as little as $400. The high yen, however, is still likely to cancel out some of the bargains.

Industry analysts are upbeat despite the dismal figures. The influential UNWTO World Tourism Barometer predicts that the impact of the disaster on tourism will be limited to areas directly involved. "Alternative destinations will pick up the slack," says its latest report.

Overall tourism, especially domestic, is already recovering -- and faster than many expected, points out Masaki Sakamoto, director of Hawaii Tourism Asia. Hong Kong and other Asian visitors are slowly returning and, "the Chinese will be back soon," he says. But he adds a warning: "Until the nuclear fear is gone, which looks like it will take a few years, it is difficult to see a full recovery."

For now, nobody knows when that will be but American Mindy Heddens, for one, says she will be back.  "What an amazing country," she enthuses. "I love it here. It's like a well-kept secret."

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