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Japan tourism keeps a low profile abroad

Luc Citrinot, eTN  Apr 18, 2011

SHANGHAI (eTN) - People around the world are praising the Japanese for their restraint following the March earthquake and tsunami. “It is admirable how Japanese handled the catastrophe. I saw on television, pictures of Japanese people queuing to get food in affected areas, and I know that there has been no report on looting or rioting there. That would be absolutely inconceivable in China,” told a visibly impressed Chinese delegate at the recent IT&CM travel show.

Japan’s character is indeed all about stoicism in adversity, coupled with a deep sense of sacrifice. What can be considered as a virtue could, however, be seen as a weakness when linked to tourism. More than a month following the tsunami, Japanese authorities have kept a low profile in terms of communication. They still did not convey the message about the real stand of the tourism industry and how far the country has come in its readiness to welcome visitors. Of course, the priority is somewhere else, but in crisis times, communication is still an important tool to help bring back a return to normalization. In Asia, Thailand is the perfect example of a country which mastered very well in the past its communication in crisis times.

“We feel very upset that the government did not start to communicate about places where people can still go. Okinawa island is far more away from the Sendai/Fukushima area than Korea and is perfectly safe for travelers. But people now get the feeling that we are also affected by the aftermath of the nuclear plant leakage. It is unfortunate, but tourism is still not considered as a serious industry in our country,” expressed Toshihide Ozaki, General Manager Inbound for JTB Okinawa, one of the dozen companies present on the Japanese booth at IT&CM China in Shanghai. So far, official organizations such as UNWTO and IATA have explained that most parts of Japan were still safe for travel for visitors.

According to Darren Ng, Managing Director of TTG Asia Media, one of the event’s co-organizers, Japan’s presence was reduced from 100 m2 to 70 m2. Convention bureaus such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Niigata decided not to participate in the show. According to the Executive Director of the Japan Convention Bureau, Kaneyuki Ono, staff at Niigata Convention Bureau were re-assigned to help rescue teams, while the Osaka Convention Bureau pulled out as it estimated that only a few people would be interested in looking at the destination for now. “Our budget is very tight, and we would not spend money on a trade show with most probably little results,” indicated Jun Matsumuro, Assistant Section Manager of Osaka International Convention and present on a private basis.

However, Okinawa and the Chiba prefecture (near Tokyo), as well as Sapporo Convention bureaus took the risk to be present. And it seemed that it paid off, as many trade visitors could be seen during the two-day mart at the Japan booth. But officials from the Japan Convention Bureau – a subsidiary of the Japan National Tourism Organization - were strangely silent. When asked if Japan could have, for example, organized a press meeting with the media present at IT&CM China, Darren Ng highlighted that media briefing slots were available. Present in Shanghai, Kaneyuki Ono tried to explain Japan’s current tourism position: “We are still in the midst of grief affecting all Japanese people. We must first concentrate on recovery efforts before [we are] back with a big campaign,” explained Mr. Ono. Jun Matsumuro agreed with Mr. Ono as he thinks that Japanese have more urgent problems to solve than luring travelers.

Business travel did, however, not stop to a complete halt. According to Mr. Ono, the Academy of International Business will be meeting at the WINC Aichi (Aichi Industry & Labor Center) in Nagoya on June 25 to 28, 2011. Established in 1959, today AIB has about 3,200 members in 76 different countries around the world. Next September, the general assembly of the International Architects Union will still be hosted in Tokyo. According to Osaka International Convention Center, many of the meetings planned in Northeast Japan have been relocated West of Tokyo. “We [have] talk[ed] about some 400 events so far,” said Mr. Matsumuro.

Convention Bureaus in Japan have already asked the Japan National Tourist Organization to issue letters to be sent around the world to international meeting planners to assess the situation and tell them that West and South Japan are still safe for visiting. “But of course, as long as the nuclear situation is not fully under control, we cannot solve the problem and predict any turnaround in tourism recovery,” explained Mr. Matsumuro.

But there is still a sense of urgency to communicate rapidly and in the most transparent way about the situation. Present at the Korean booth, Eric Suh, Sales and Marketing Manager for Bosuk Tours Ltd. in Seoul, indicated that some groups have also started to cancel their trips, fearing the proximity of nuke radiation from Japan. “These are mostly Chinese visitors,” he said. “Korea remains safe as wind blew in the opposite direction to our country. There is nothing to fear of any nuclear cloud,” told Jeong Wook Moon, Deputy Director, Incentive and Exhibition Team of the Korea Tourism Organization. The biggest challenge now is to convince people Japan is safe.

Japan tourism keeps a low profile abroad
French school map of Japan from the sixties / Photo by Luc Citrinot

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