NEW YORK — A year after a tsunami and earthquake devastated parts of Japan, officials say tourism to Tokyo and other areas unaffected by the disaster is on track to recover to pre-tsunami levels, with business travel leading the way.
In a conference call Thursday night, Shuichi Kameyama, director of the International Tourism Promotion Division at Japan Tourism Agency, said the number of visitors to Japan in 2011 was 6.2 million, down nearly 30 percent from the 8.6 million who visited in 2010.
But arrivals have been picking up, with a surge in January due to Lunar New Year, and more tourists expected this spring for cherry blossom season and later in the year for summer festivals.
Kameyama said foreign visitor arrivals in January 2012 were only 4 percent below January 2011, before the March 11 disaster.
Kameyama said arrivals from Korea took the biggest hit in 2011, down 35 percent.
Malcolm Thompson, general manager of The Peninsula Tokyo hotel, said that historically the hotel's guests are 70 percent business, 30 percent leisure.
"Corporate business is 95 percent back," he said. "It's really the high-end leisure traveler from America and Europe. They're the ones we are not seeing yet. They're the ones who are still very tentative about Japan. We here know that everything is fine and life is back to normal in most parts of Japan, but that's not the perception."
The World Travel and Tourism Council in December predicted that tourism in Japan would make a "recovery by early 2012" but added that "there is still some work to be done in attracting previous levels of international visitors, particularly from long-haul markets where there may be residual nervousness regarding the nuclear situation."
The tsunami and earthquake led to a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, about 180 miles from Tokyo. Efforts to counteract travelers' fears include a Japan National Tourism Organization website showing that radiation levels in Tokyo are similar to or lower than other destinations such as New York and Paris.
Thompson said at his hotel, occupancy levels are typically over 60 percent in the first three months of the year, which tend to be the slowest.
"We are still 11 percentage points below what we would have been but it is dramatically improving now," he said. "With cherry blossom season approaching, we are seeing within this month more inquiries from America, from potential American leisure guests, 'What time should I be there in Tokyo to see the blossoms?' That is a very good sign."
While bargains and promotions have helped lure some travelers back, others have been discouraged by the strong yen, which makes travel for foreigners expensive.
Japan Tourism is launching new promotions this year in the U.S. and Canada targeting affluent, educated leisure travelers from metro areas, as well as niche markets for visitors interested in everything from diving to pop culture to gay and lesbian travel. High-end tour companies will also be targeted in order to attract travelers who will spend more.
Promotions in the U.S. will include celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Japan's gift of flowering cherry trees to Washington, D.C. Cherry blossom season draws about a million people to the capital each spring. In New York City, a variety of events have marked Japan Week, including digital cherry blossom displays in Times Square and a "Dine Out for Japan- Restaurant Week," March 7-11, with donations from participating restaurants going to disaster relief.
Japanese tourism officials have also launched a "Japan: Thank You" campaign to welcome back tourists, with a logo showing a carp fish going upstream to symbolize Japan rising again. Kameyama said that according to legend, the carp turns into a dragon. "This is the year of the dragon," Kameyama said. "It's a good symbol for Japan to rebuild."
At Japan Airlines, "business travel has been leading a return in demand for Japan Airlines," according to Chen Zhou Wen, assistant manager for overseas regional sales. "We do expect a very good 2012." The airline's promotions include the launch of "Sky Manga," the world's first airline manga (Japanese comics) reader. Travelers will have access to manga titles from a screen at every seat. Initially they will be available only in Japanese, Chen said.
WTTC's 12th Global Summit is scheduled to take place in Japan April 16-19.