April 20, 2011 / 9:48 AM / 6 years ago

Plunge in Japan tourists "tough situation"

<p>New student Rika Kikuchi has her new school hat put on by her grandmother after an entrance ceremony at Kamaishi elementary school in Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture, after the area was devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, April 20, 2011. REUTERS/Toru Hanai</p>

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - The plunge in foreign tourist numbers to Japan following a string of natural calamities and a nuclear crisis has put the key industry in a tough situation, particularly with crucial Asian markets, its tourism agency head said on Wednesday.

The number of foreign visitors fell by half in March compared to a year earlier, with travelers scared off by fears of radiation from a crippled nuclear plant some 240 km (149 miles) north of Tokyo after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

This was the sharpest drop since comparable data began to be compiled in 1961 and the first year-to-year-fall since October 2009, the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) said last week.

The key to luring back foreign visitors will be convincing them of Japan’s overall safety, especially in regions far from the disaster-stricken northeast, said Hiroshi Mizohata, commissioner of Japan’s Tourism Agency.

“It’s true that there are continuing aftershocks and there are still problems with the nuclear reactors,” Mizohata told a news conference, terming the 9.0 quake and tsunami a “once in a thousand years” disaster.

“We are in a very tough situation but are doing everything we can to show that Japan is still vital and safe.”

The JNTO website (www.jnto.go.jp/eq/eng/) now has a "travel update" section that includes detailed information on transportation and live video feeds from tourist sites including Tokyo's Akihabara electronics mecca, especially popular with Chinese tourists.

Another section shows detailed radiation levels for each part of Japan, updated daily.

Squeezed by an aging population and deflationary pressures, Japan has pushed to draw more tourists, particularly from elsewhere in Asia, to offset weak domestic consumption.

Travel and tourism had been expected to contribute nearly 7 percent to Japan’s gross domestic product this year, or 33 trillion yen, according to the International Air Transport Association -- a forecast made before the quake.

A record 9.44 million foreigners visited Japan last year, with in-bound Chinese jumping by more than a third to about 1.6 million, overtaking Taiwanese as having the most visitors to Japan, behind the South Koreans.

All tours from Hong Kong were canceled from shortly after the disaster to the middle of this month, leaving stores in the posh Ginza shopping area noticeably thinner late in March.

But some tours -- to the northernmost island of Hokkaido and the southern island of Okinawa -- resumed last week, according to Mizohata, who met with a Chinese tourism counterpart last week and hopes to meet with other Asian counterparts soon.

“We will exert all efforts to restore confidence” in Japan as a tourist destination, he said.

In one step back toward normalcy, Tokyo Disneyland reopened on Friday with shortened hours but plans to extend them to its usual 10:00 p.m. close soon.

Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato

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