TOKYO (Nikkei)–Local governments in northeastern Japan are taking matters into their own hands as they try to revive local tourism and breathe life into areas that have been desolate since the March 11 earthquake.
The city of Osaki in Miyagi Prefecture, which is famous for its high-quality Sasanishiki brand rice, is setting up a semipublic corporation this autumn to promote tourism, together with travel agencies and sightseeing spots.
The body will come up with new sightseeing plans that cover scenic and historical places in the city. It will also develop new products and services combining therapeutic baths and farm visits.
“I hope these programs will help stimulate local tourism again and woo back tourists that we have lost since the disaster,” said an official with Osaki’s tourism promotion department.
Naruko hot spring, west of Osaki, was less damaged in the quake than coastal areas in the prefecture, but it has seen a drop in visitors. Ohnuma, a 100-year-old inn in Naruko, has seen a 60% decline in visitors compared with typical years. “The entire community must work together to develop new tourism resources, otherwise we won’t be able to overcome this challenge,” said Shinji Ohnuma, the inn’s owner.
According to the Japan Tourism Agency, the number of visitors to six northeastern prefectures fell 41.6% on the year between April 29 and May 8. The town of Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture saw a staggering 85% drop during the same period. Tourists have returned since the town was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in June, but in numbers no greater than last year.
The Tohoku region is usually awash in tourists in summer as it puts on a number of well-known festivals and events. “Reservations this summer are projected to be around 60-70% of usual years,” said an official at the Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization.
Coastal areas suffered badly in the quake and tsunami, but reconstruction has brought an influx of construction workers, who stay at local hotels and inns. One inn in Matsushima, Miyagi, has seen the number of guests double compared with the same time last year.
When the going gets tough
By contrast, inland areas, such as Osaki, that survived the disaster largely unscathed, have been hit by a dearth of tourists. In Mutsu, Aomori Prefecture, an inn at the Yagen hot spring has seen the number of guests fall 80% from a typical year.
The situation is so dire that local communities cannot sit and wait for the tourists to return, leaving promotion campaigns to travel agencies alone. Yamagata Prefecture in May began a comprehensive tourism promotion centered on one of its most famous products: cherries. Previously, municipalities, travel agencies and farmers ran their own campaigns.
The town of Hiraizumi, in Iwate Prefecture, has seen tourists return after it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but visitor numbers are unchanged from last year.
The devastation caused by the disaster led people nationwide to snap their purses shut, and the nuclear crisis in Fukushima Prefecture made people wary of the region’s produce. That has kept tourists away and depressed sales of cherries. To reverse this trend, Yamagata Prefecture has been touting the safety of its fruit, putting up posters in train stations around Tokyo.
Akita Prefecture has seen a drop-off in foreign visitors. Before the quake, it was a popular destination for South Koreans who wanted to see locations where a popular drama, “Iris,” was filmed. In October, the prefecture will set up a call center to provide tourism information in English, Chinese and Korean. The center will be run by Tokyo-based IT firm, ubusuna, Inc., which will hire three local contract workers through the prefecture’s employment assistance program. It is unusual for a local government to subsidize a tourism call center run by a private company.
It will take time to bring the tourists back. Anxious quake-hit areas are thus urging local governments to find new ways to jump-start this vital industry.
(The Nikkei July 15 morning edition)