The number of foreign visitors to Japan, which plunged last year after the earthquake and tsunami struck the country last March, is returning to pre-earthquake levels, thanks to increased demand from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, which is offsetting lingering safety concerns in Korea and Europe.

Even more encouraging is the fact that the growth is taking place despite a relatively expensive yen.

Japan attracted about 685,000 foreign visitors in January, down 4.1% from a year earlier, executives from Japan's Tourism Ministry, Japan Airlines and the Peninsula Tokyo reported in a March 8 conference call with journalists. Japan attracted 6.2 million visitors in 2011, down 28% from 2010.

January visitation from China and Hong Kong was up about 40% from a year earlier, with China numbers buoyed in part by the Chinese New Year, which in 2011 took place in February but this year fell on Jan. 23. The number of visitors from the U.S., Japan's fourth-largest foreign tourist market, fell 6.2% in January from a year earlier.

Meanwhile, South Korea, by far Japan's largest foreign-tourist market, accounted for 35% fewer visits in January than it had a year earlier, while visits from France and Germany fell about 17%. The South Korean market, which accounts for about a third of Japan's foreign tourism, was particularly affected by reports that the nuclear meltdown in northeast Japan that was triggered by the disaster continues to pose health risks.

As a result, the Peninsula Tokyo's occupancy levels are down about 10 percentage points from a year ago, to "just over 50%," while average nightly rates have fallen about $122, according to Malcolm Thompson, the hotel's general manager.

On the call, Shuichi Kameyama, director of the Japan Tourism Agency's international tourism promotion, said, "Our biggest task is to figure out how to recover our numbers from the Korean market. Everything is normal in most of Japan. Those [radiation] issues are exaggerated by the foreign media."

The value of the Japanese yen has not helped matters. Relative to other currencies, the yen is still about even with its value a year ago, but it has jumped about 7% in the past month.

Still, those on the call were confident that Japan tourism would return to pre-disaster levels this year, with Kameyama predicting a "record high" number of foreign visitors.

Other potential drivers of foreign visitors include new Japan Airlines nonstop routes from Tokyo to San Diego and Boston, according to Chen Zhuo Wen, the carrier's assistant manager of overseas region sales. January's passenger count was down 2% from a year earlier, she said during the call.

Japan's tourism ministry will try to boost visits from the U.S. by targeting affluent Asian Americans as well as niche markets such as diving enthusiasts, pop-culture aficionados and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami killed more than 19,000 people and pushed the number of foreign visitors to Japan to its lowest level since 2004.

Follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly.

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