Japan: tourism versus tsunami


(eTN) – While Japan still tries to cope with its most serious nuclear crisis and natural catastrophe since the end of World War II, what could be the consequences for the tourism industry? Being the world’s third largest economic powerhouse, Japan is also a big player on the tourism scene. The total number of Japanese traveling abroad reached 16.7 million in 2010, while inbound tourism to Japan totalled 8.6 million foreign visitors during the same period.

International air traffic from and to Japan operates normally as major international gateways were not affected by the catastrophe. Both the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) have issued a joint statement reaffirming that traveling to Japan was safe in coordination with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization.

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Looking at Japanese travelers venturing abroad, the recent tsunami and earthquake is likely to have little impact. According to incoming agencies working closely with Japan’s tour operators, Japanese travelers tend to plan their holiday long in advance, buying also their packages months ahead of their departure. Most of the travelers consequently continue to leave Japan for their overseas holiday. It is, in fact, surprising to still see relatively high number of Japanese tourists strolling in the streets of Paris, London, San Francisco, New York, or Seoul despite the current crisis. Most affected would probably be Asia and the Pacific area. Being closer to Japan, people could easily defer their departure, especially as consumption might be dampened by a solidarity movement to boost the economic recovery in devastated regions.

According to Guam Visitor’s Bureau General Manager Gerry Perez to US media, the drop in visitor arrivals from Japan would be brief with near-term arrivals from Japan likely to drop 5-10%. Hawaii braces for a sharp drop in total arrivals from Japan according to previous experiences in crisis times. During the SARS crisis in 2002-2003, total arrivals from Japanese to Hawaii dropped by almost 10%. Stagnation or a moderate decline are expected by countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Korea. However, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), the impact of a weakening Japanese outbound market will be limited as China or even India are the new engines of growth for tourism on the Asian continent.

The most tsunami-affected northeastern prefectures include the city of Sendai, north of Tokyo, an important economic center for services with a population of 1.1 million inhabitants. However, according to data from 2006 published by the Japan Ministry of Justice, the total number of outbound travelers out of Sendai Airport topped only 103,000, roughly 0.6% of all outbound travelers. Big metropolises such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya remain unaffected, and these three cities represent roughly 80% of all available air seats from and to Japan.

Anxiety of being affected by radiation or other potential tremors has already started to depress the demand for travel to Japan and has generated travel warnings from other countries. After the USA, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office just issued a travel advisory against all but necessary travel to Tokyo and Northeastern Japan. Countries such as France, Germany, and Canada issued statements asking their citizens to avoid an area covering all of Northern Japan, including Tokyo. French tour operators have already announced suspending any departure to Japan until the end of April. Most international cruise lines have also decided to temporary suspend their port calls in continental Japan. However, some will continue to serve Okinawa Island, the most Southern part of the Japanese archipelago.

Juergen Thomas Steinmetz has continuously worked in the travel and tourism industry since he was a teenager in Germany (1979), beginning as a travel agent up through today as a publisher of eTurboNews (eTN), one of the world’s most influential and most-read travel and tourism publications. He is also Chairman of ICTP. His experiences include working and collaborating with various national tourism offices and non-governmental organizations, as well as private and non-profit organizations, and in planning, implementing, and quality control of a range of travel and tourism-related activities and programs, including tourism policies and legislation. His major strengths include a vast knowledge of travel and tourism from the point of view of a successful private enterprise owner, superb networking skills, strong leadership, excellent communication skills, strong team player, attention to detail, dutiful respect for compliance in all regulated environments, and advisory skills in both political and non-political arenas with respect to tourism programs, policies, and legislation. He has a thorough knowledge of current industry practices and trends and is a computer and Internet junkie.