Figures on tourist arrivals early this year by the Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) had never been more positive or filled with potential.
The number of Malaysian travellers to Japan had been steadily increasing over the decade, from 72,445 in 2004 to 85,627 in 2006, climbing to 105,663 in 2008 and 114,500 last year. It had been expected to increase by 20% this year.
Then disaster struck on March 11, and with lingering concerns over the dangers of radiation from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, tourists became reluctant to visit the country.
Malaysian tour operators were left with a crisis of mass cancellations in bookings for Japan.
In March last year, the number of Malaysian visitors to Japan was 12,130. For the same month this year, it was only 5,500, marking a 54.7% decrease.
And Malaysians aren’t the only ones who are passing Japan over. Germans visitors recorded the biggest drop at 64%, from 14,141 visitors last March to just 5,000 this March.
Overall, Japan suffered a drop of 50% from 709,684 visitors in March 2010 to 352,800 this year.
News about the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant continues to stoke fear of radiation among potential travellers although United Nations organisations, including the World Health Organisation and World Tourism Organisation which are monitoring the situation, have issued a statement saying that the current radiation levels pose no travel risk to Japan.
Malaysian tour operators are calling for information to be disseminated over the media to dispel the negative news and fears about radiation that have made many travellers afraid to visit Japan.
The tour agents are dismayed that many rumours and fears have not been dispelled on an official level.
“The problem is that nobody realises we do not have a problem,” said Micky Gan, managing director of the Tokyo-based Alpha International Service Corporation during a Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) seminar on the revival of Japan bound tourism held in Kuala Lumpur recently.
There are so many rumours flying around uncontained and unchallenged, ranging from entire onsen (hot springs) being washed out to sea to a certain “Mr Saito”, a tour guide we’ve met before, being lost to the waves, he highlighted.
“In reality, everything is as normal as can be in Tokyo. Shibuya is packed. The trains arrive every minute on the dot. People queue everywhere. It is normal, peaceful and orderly. Shops specifically selling produce harvested from Fukushima sell three times as much as those who sell products from other regions in Japan. It is a show of solidarity and support.
“I can tell you that no country takes safety issues as seriously as Japan. The authorities set a very strict standard on safety. And contaminated food has never been released to the consumer market,” assured Gan who has been residing in Tokyo for over 30 years.
“Some of the reports by the foreign media have inaccurately painted the picture that there is no stock of food or beverage in convenience stores. But the way a Japanese convenience store operates is different. Due to high rental costs, they do not keep huge stocks or have a storeroom.”
Tour operators in Malaysia are eager to resume outbound activities to Japan. To get the ball rolling, they are calling on suppliers including airlines, hotels and ground transportation providers to support them by giving a 30% discount.
“Japan’s tourism revival requires a three-party commitment, from suppliers, operators and government authorities,” said Koh Yock Heng of Apple Vacations and Conventions Sdn Bhd, the leading Japan outbound tour operator in Malaysia.
“We understand that airlines used to have 85% to 95% load capacity for Japan destinations. That’s now reduced to 30% to 50% and the problem is compounded by rising oil prices. But if we want to kickstart the tourism machinery again we must have hefty discounts and positive support.”
Koh said news of the disaster hit them smack in the middle of the MATTA Fair in March.
“Our April sakura season tours and July Hokkaido lavender tours were selling well in the morning. Then activity slowed down before stopping completely by late afternoon. Cancellations came. We have refunded RM5mil worth of bookings while 20% of customers converted their packages to other destinations like Korea,” he revealed.
Before March 11, chartered flights to Hokkaido had been at 85% capacity but after that, it was reduced to 15%, he explained.
“From an expected 18 groups, we will only be taking three groups. Even if we make a loss, we are still flying to Japan. It is to send a strong message to the market that Apple is starting activities to Japan again.”
To get people to go to Japan again, the facts have to be told, he said.
“Tokyo is located some 400km from Sendai and 240km from Fukushima. The Kansai region with Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe is well over 1,000km away. The islands of Kyushu in the south and Hokkaido in the far north are also far away.”
Malaysians looking for travel packages costing between RM4,000 and RM6,000 are their target group, according to Koh.
“They are generally more educated and take a keen interest in current affairs and they expect to be well informed. So we need to tell them why it is safe to visit Japan. JNTO needs to provide the public this information.”
Koh added that Hong Kong is already starting tours to Tokyo, Kyushu and Hokkaido but not to Sendai.
“We must do our groundwork now, not later, to prepare for the September Raya season and school holidays,” he said.
Apple launched its packages last week, becoming the first in the country to start selling this destination again since March 11. Within three days, they managed to confirm 160 bookings, and its managing director Datuk Desmond Lee San said they are confident of achieving 1,000 bookings.
“We are banking on one of Japan’s loveliest destinations in summer to draw visitors. I trust that Malaysians would love experiencing the natural scenery, warm hospitality and cherry, lavender and rock melon season in Hokkaido in July,” he told The Star.
The bookings are for Apple’s specially arranged chartered flights to Hokkaido with Malaysia Airlines. Apple has slashed it usual price of RM6,899 (US$2,298) for a seven-day Hokkaido tour to between RM3,499 and RM4,799.
Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also lifted its advisory against non-essential travel to Japan last week. However, it continues to advise Singaporeans “to avoid travel to the coastal areas of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, which were the most affected by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, as these areas continue to suffer disruptions to residential, business and transport infrastructure.”
Taking media and trade members to see Japan is a vital way of reviving tourism to the country, according to Matthew Cheah, director of J-Horizons Travel, which saw an 80% drop in business after March 11.
“It is vital for us to start taking media and trade members to see Japan for themselves. We will focus our efforts on Hokkaido, Kyushu and Honshu,” he said.
Shen Nordin, corporate and retail outbound division manager of Japan Travel Bureau (Malaysia), which regularly expects some 20,000 Japanese visitors to Malaysia, said inbound tours from Japan were also affected.
“We must sweeten the deal for travellers to head back to Japan. The discounts are required for just a limited period of around three months. Malaysians also need to hear from the authorities that it is safe to visit Japan. We cannot afford to wait any longer as many people will be out of a job.”
Shen added that official travel advisory have not been updated to reflect the real situation. He said that the one issued by the Malaysian Foreign Ministry still reads: Malaysians are strongly urged to defer unessential travel to Japan unless absolutely necessary. Malaysians who travel to other parts of Japan are advised to exercise a high degree of caution due to the prevailing situation regarding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
“Now who wouldn’t be terrified after such advice? Whose responsibility is it to update and coordinate with the Government on the actual situation? The American, Australian and British embassies have updated theirs,” he pointed out.
“We hope the JNTO will conduct a public relations exercise. People do not know or understand what is really happening.
“If we really want to help Japan, we should help them recover their economy. What they earn will extend to their communities.”
In response to these calls, the JNTO will be resuming promotional activities this month. Its Singapore office director Shimizu Yasumasa said they are in the midst of re-allocating their budget to concentrate promotional activities to revive tourism to Japan.
“The first stage of our recovery plan is providing updates to industry partners and the public; the second stage is to resume activities; and the third stage is to hold familiarisation trips for media and industry partners. We will also be having a Japan promotion in Singapore in September.”
Cheah has called for a similar Japan Fair utilising the joint efforts of agents and suppliers.
Koh is confident that Malaysian visitors will return to Japan. “People go to Korea once or twice and that’s it. But travellers are very likely to make repeat visits to Japan,” he said.