TOKYO -- Nearly eight months after the devastating March 11 earthquake and ensuing tsunami and nuclear crisis brought Japan's inbound tourism industry to a standstill, life for most locals is returning to normal and, in tandem, visitor numbers are steadily inching back up.
In Tokyo -- which, along with Kyoto, attracts the lion's share of overseas visitors -- subways are running on prequake schedules, and customers fill the shops, restaurants and attractions. Even once-empty hotels have seen rising occupancies. Only Tokyo's ubiquitous vending machines remain dark, in an ongoing power-saving measure.
Brian Salsberg, a partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in Tokyo and co-editor of "Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future That Works," calls it "a tale of two cities. Certainly for the people living in and near the Tohoku and Sendai area, [March 11] had and continues to have a devastating effect.
"But for everyone else, and those in Tokyo and Osaka specifically, this is their Hurricane Katrina," he said. "Everyone sat there watching and not believing that such a disaster could happen, but then a few weeks later life is back to normal ... with the exception of the radiation issue and [possible effects] on the food supply."
Back in business, too, are Japan's tourism authorities, trying to regain their collective footing and the once-rapid pace at which, prior to the disaster, they had been successfully courting foreign travelers.
"Our biggest task right now is to communicate to the world that Japan is completely safe and back to normal," said Hiroshi Mizohata, commissioner of the Japan Tourism Agency.
A boom gone bust
In 2010, the Visit Japan Campaign -- a seven-year-old push to develop a world-class inbound tourism industry -- bore its biggest fruit: a record 8.6 million arrivals. And between Jan. 1 and Feb. 28 of this year, in the off-season, nearly 1.4 million had already shed their shoes at Japan's doorstep.
"January and February were very good, but obviously arrivals plummeted after March 11," said Mizohata, attributing drops of up to 63% through the end of May to consumer fears and worldwide government advisories against travel to Japan. From the U.S., the destination's most important non-Asian market, growth of 6.6% in January was replaced by a drop of 55% in April.
But since June, the deficit of tourists has become smaller each month, he added. "By September, overall arrivals were down only 25%" from the same month last year and U.S. arrivals were down only 17%.
The private sector reported measured progress, too, of sorts. According to Malcolm Thompson, general manager of luxury hotel property the Peninsula Tokyo, occupancy currently hovers around 60%, "which is not a total disaster ... so we're not complaining."
However, the majority of guests at the Peninsula are now Japanese. "We were around 65% foreign guests, the rest local," Thompson said. Now, "that's reversed."
"Corporate guests are indeed coming back, but they're not yet returning in the numbers we used to have," he added. Foreign leisure bookings are still virtually nonexistent.
"The average daily rate for the top-tier hotels in Tokyo is off about $100 to $120 compared with the same time last year," Thompson said. "That's where those high-end leisure guests could help; they're the ones who stay three or four nights."
The JTA is interested in upscale visitors, too, according to Mizohata, but in the longer term. "Our priority right now is to first increase the overall arrival numbers."
The JTA is also taking a longer view and redeploying its ambitious pre-March 11 growth strategy. That program, which is designed to grow visitor arrivals to 25 million annually by 2019 and, ultimately, a hoped-for 30 million per year, was first formulated as a response to Japan's demographic, rather than ecological, crisis.
"The reason behind Japan's promoting tourism as of the last seven years is to revitalize our economy in light of our rapidly decreasing population," Mizohata said. "We need a new economic driver, especially for regional economies outside Tokyo, and tourism can be that engine for reinvigorating Japan."
How to brand Japan abroad
Despite having sent legions of tourists abroad for decades, Japan did not begun cultivating inbound tourism in earnest until 2003. And while some have chalked it up to Japanese xenophobia, Salsberg disagrees. "Japan is not a xenophobic country, at least as far as tourism goes; on the contrary, [Japanese] are warm and welcoming and friendly," he said. "Any lack of focus on tourism can probably be attributed to communication issues as much as anything else."
It's only quite recently, he added, that Japan, and Tokyo in particular, has become very accessible to foreigners.
"At the same time, I'm not at all convinced that Japan has totally figured out how to tell its story or brand itself," Salsberg said.
The JTA is trying to do so with its multipronged approach, according to Mizohata. In the immediate time frame, it's disseminating information about recovery efforts via the media and travel trade. The JTA has held more than 100 sessions with media and travel professionals around the world "to explain our situation," he said. The organization has also invited more than 1,000 journalists, operators and agents to Japan to see the country for themselves.
The travel trade also plays an important role in the longer term, said Shuichi Kameyama, director of the JTA's International Tourism Promotion Division. "We've always communicated with tour operators and other travel companies, discussing the possibility of new tour product to, and new destinations within, Japan," he said. "But because of the strong yen right now, U.S. tour operators are kind of hesitant."
Yet the JTA remains bullish about the U.S., which accounted for 8.4% of all arrivals in 2010, and has set a goal of attracting 1.2 million Americans per year by 2016.
"The U.S. and Japan have historically friendly ties, so the exchange of people between the two is one of the most important goals for us," Mizohata said.
For destination news and updates worldwide, follow Ken Kiesnoski on Twitter @kktravelweekly.