Japan blossoms with visitors

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NEW YORK -- Whether it's the strong exchange rate or an increased cruise presence, tour operators are reporting a boom in leisure travel to Japan.

Many Japan operators are citing growth rates they wouldn't have dreamed of just a few months ago.

"Our Japan business is very strong this year, the strongest ever," said Bob Drumm, president of General Tours-TBI Tours. Drumm said the upward trend has been in place since the first of the year.

Chester Allen, manager of Jalpak International, the vacation packaging arm of Japan Airlines, said business is up "probably 25%" year over year from 2001.

Allen, like most operators, cites the exchange rate as a major factor. "You can buy a lot of yen for the dollar now," he said. "I think that is helping."

Drumm echoed that sentiment. "The exchange rate has been good," he said. "A deflation has been going on in Japan, so there are some really good values there now."

Ashley Isaacs, director of marketing and business development for Absolute Asia, said business to Japan is "better than ever" and might be up as much as 50% over last year.

"A lot of travelers who traveled to Europe in the past now see Japan as safe, easy to get to, luxurious and still exotic."

Phyllis Lenss, director of marketing for Northwest World Vacations, said her company had its best winter ever in Asia, and aggressive pricing was a factor.

"Asian economies were suffering throughout all our destinations, so we've been seeing a more aggressive approach to tourism marketing," she said.

Meanwhile, Gerry Kerr, director of marketing for Pacific Delight Tours, said the word is out that great values exist in Japan right now.

Many U.S. operators are enjoying the benefits of a strong exchange rate in Japanese cities, such as Tokyo, above. The values are "not just in the fares and the hotel prices but in the general cost of dining, drinking and all the elements that go into a vacation once you're there."

"Some people who got their first taste of Asia with the very popular places like Hong Kong and [mainland] China now feel more comfortable with the whole Asia experience," he added.

As a destination, Japan has struggled against the perception that it is too expensive, and that feeling is backed by some truth.

Japan traditionally has been more expensive than any other Asian destination, and that price gap might have sent travelers with an interest in Asia to other countries in the region.

But operators are seeing other factors tempering the price consideration. One factor they cite is the perception of safety.

"Part of it may very well be that since Sept. 11, there's not a lot of traffic to Europe, and Asia, in general, has benefited," Kerr said. "Japan is perceived to be safe. People are taking a fresh, new look at [safety]."

Suppliers also may be benefiting from an increased cruise presence in Japan. Crystal Cruises started calls in Tokyo earlier this month, and Silversea will put the Silver Wind into Japan in April 2003.

"We're seeing the whole leisure side of business pick up," said Sachiko Takahashi, sales manager for North America and Europe for the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo. "I think it is partly because a lot of the cruise lines are starting to put cruises in the area. We are seeing a lot of pre- and post-cruise extensions."

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