Dispatch, Japan: Rebuilding tourism

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KKJAPAN-dispatch

Travel Weekly's Kenneth Kiesnoski visited Japan as a guest of the Japanese National Tourist Organization. His third and final dispatch follows. Click to read his first and second dispatches.

My final full day in Japan found me back in Tokyo, ensconced at the Imperial Hotel, which first opened in 1890 and was once partly owned, unsurprisingly, by the country’s imperial family.

The original Victorian building, razed by a fire, was replaced with a legendary, Mayan-inspired structure designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1923.

Wright’s masterpiece opened on the very day a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck the island of Honshu, killing as many as 140,000 people. Much of Tokyo was leveled, but the Imperial survived.

In 1970, the hotel, decayed beyond hope of restoration, was replaced by the rather drab skyscraper that has housed it ever since. Its facade might no longer thrill, but guestrooms, public areas and service remain regal at the Imperial.

As I was in Japan to assess the state of inbound tourism after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, I found it fitting that I was to stay a night in a renowned hotel that survived a major earthquake 88 years ago (although the hotel’s structure was different then).

After checking in, I joined hotel management for a quick site inspection and leisurely lunch at the property’s La Brasserie restaurant. Highly anticipated pre-lunch drinks at the Wright-inspired Old Imperial Bar were a non-starter, however, as lounge operating hours have been curtailed to conserve electricity.

I then strolled to the nearby offices of the Japan National Tourist Organization with two other American journalists for a meeting with tourism officials and a delegation of U.S. tour operators participating in a familiarization and goodwill trip sponsored by the U.S. Tour Operators Association and the National Tour Association.

NTA Chairman Cathy Greteman and Laudie Hanou of Sita World Tours (standing in as the official USTOA representative for President Terry Dale) had just flown in with six other NTA and USTOA members for several days of touring.

At the JNTO offices, everyone was in shirtsleeves. I had expected local businesspeople to conform to the blue- or black-suited Japanese "salary man" stereotype, but in one silver lining to the energy crisis, every day in Tokyo is now casual Friday, more or less. That’s because the air conditioning is either on low or off, as it appeared to be in our conference room.

We sat down with a half-dozen officials from JNTO, the Japan Tourism Agency and other tourism interests for an hour-long exchange of ideas.

Yasuto Kawarabayashi, director of JTA’s international tourism-promotion division, presented us with a quick rundown of the rather grim numbers. In May alone, international visits dropped more than 50%. For the first five months of 2011, arrivals from the U.S., Japan’s fourth-largest source market, dipped 30.3%.

Kawarabayashi passed out handouts rich with pie charts, detailing not only arrival numbers but initiatives to spur tourism to Japan. These included a recent visit by New York’s Metropolitan Opera to Tokyo and a YouTube campaign featuring testimonials from international celebrities who recently visited the country.

Lady Gaga, who has been vocal in her support for Japan and made a June 23 appearance in Tokyo, got her own page in the handout.

JTA data indicated visitors to Tokyo are not in any more danger from radiation than they would be in other cities, including Hong Kong and New York. We murmured over the surprising and, frankly, hard-to-believe figures.

Kawarabayashi said the data were accurate, but he admitted that he and other Japanese government officials "do have a credibility problem," given the less than ideal way the nuclear crisis was handled.

What the JNTO and JTA folks really wanted was our data — impressions of Japan and suggestions for enticing reluctant U.S. citizens to travel.

"We have been doing what

ever we can think of. However, we’re not sure we’ve been doing a good job," Kawarabayashi said. "Today is a very good opportunity for us to listen to your opinions and comments in order to improve our policies to counter the negatives we’ve been faced with."

That Japan is somewhat at a loss as to how to rebuild tourism isn’t surprising. Japan, for its appeal, has never been an aggressive tourism marketer.

Although the JNTO was established in 1964, it was only in 2008 that the government raised tourism to the cabinet level with the establishment of the JTA as a part of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

I told Kawarabayashi that I was charmed by Japan on my first visit to the country, and that I would indeed spread the good word back home to readers — the travel agents and tour operators who are key in driving bookings.

The country is alive, well and welcoming. And it wants and needs visitors.

Arigato go zai masu, Nippon. (Thank you very much, Japan.)

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