TOKYO -- Citing the importance of tourism to Japan's economy, the country's prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, opened the World Travel & Tourism Summit here last week, imploring those in attendance to encourage travel to regions of the country that had been devastated by the March 2011 tsunami.

"Tourism is the frontier for Japan," Noda told the 1,200 delegates in attendance for the second part of the WTTC Summit. The first day of the summit was held in the northeastern city of Sendai in the Tohoku region of Japan.

"I am confident in the power of tourism," he added, saying that it was not only vital to world economies but "develops trust among people across borders."

Noda used his platform to implore attendees to help stimulate tourism to the Tohoku region, parts of which were devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011, and the site of the first day of the summit.

"Those who visited, surely you noticed a clear scene of recovery and reconstruction," Noda said. "I am sure you are fully aware that Japan is a safe and pleasant destination for business, international conferences and all areas of tourism. ... I hope you can convince the world about the attractive and safe tourism resources in the Tohoku region."

Following Noda's remarks, Michael Frenzel, chairman of TUI AG and WTTC's chairman, said, "There is no doubt in our minds that Japan is well and truly open for business once again."

It seemed that almost every panelist here reminded the delegates that Japan was safe and ready for tourists.

Toshiba CEO Atsutoshi Nishida, chairman of the Japan host committee for the summit, called the reconstruction of the affected area within one year a "miracle."

Tohoku suffered a 60% decline in foreign tourists directly after the tsunami hit.

Hiroaki Takahashi, chairman of the Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization, also spoke at the event, saying that public misperceptions about the extent of danger and damage in the area had resulted in a sustained decline in tourism from which the region is only now emerging.

Takahashi added that despite the magnitude of damage the region suffered, most tourist areas actually suffered no damage. In addition, he said that concerns about radiation levels were unfounded and that roads and transportation were being quickly repaired.

Tourist levels are rebounding, he said, but the misconceptions still exist.

"It is regrettable that damage is caused by unfounded rumors not based on facts," he said. "All hotels, hot springs and restaurants are operating normally. There is no problem whatsoever in terms of daily life, food and water. They are all safe."

The Tohoku region also suffered a decrease in domestic tourism due to many Japanese not traveling after the earthquake, as a show of solidarity with those who had suffered. Japanese tourists make up the bulk of tourism to northeastern Japan.

Takahashi said the promotion organization made it a priority to travel to Asian countries, its primary foreign source markets, to disseminate accurate information about the situation.

The first day of the WTTC conference was held in Sendai. The rest of the summit was being held in Tokyo, less than two hours south by train, marking the first time that WTTC has held a two-location summit. Nishida said that 60% of WTTC attendees attended the show in both cities.

The decision to hold part of the summit in Sendai was made shortly after the earthquake, as a way to support the region.

Gordon Wilson, CEO of Travelport and a member of the WTTC, was involved in the decision to bring the conference to both Tokyo and Sendai.

"We wanted to focus the media on the fact that Japan is open for business and for travel and leisure," Wilson said. "They are doing an amazing job of coming back from it. The Japanese economy is picking up quite nicely. It seems like a great thing for a world association to bring a focus to."

Follow Johanna Jainchill on Twitter @jjainchilltw.


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