Operators see higher interest in Japan

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NEW YORK -- For some Asia tour operators, a surge in interest in Japan has been one of the pleasant surprises of early 2002.

Some operators reported a healthy resurgence in bookings after the first of the year, to levels comparable with -- and, in some cases, greater than -- one year ago.

Absolute Asia, based here, reported January bookings up 25% from last year, with Japan leading the pack.

"Japan is extremely popular now," said Ken Fish, president of Absolute Asia, which sells high-end packages to the region.

"Considering what we've had to endure, to find ourselves in that position is surprising, pleasantly."

Rosaline Dustan, deputy managing director for Orient Flexi-Pax, also based here, reported a brisk February. "It's better than last year," she said.

And travel agents, such as Iweeta McIntosh, president of McIntosh Tours of Richardson, Texas, also have noticed a rebound in interest in Japan.

"There is more interest in people going. Now, Sept. 11 is getting further away, and Asia has always been seen as safe."

Mamoru Kobori, director of the New York office of the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), said he has observed the same trend.

"Many tour operators have reported that interest in Japan tours seemed to pick up sharply," Kobori said, adding that the number of callers to the JNTO office also has been on the rise since January.

Now, some tour operators are adding departures, he said.

In the new world following Sept. 11, Japan has shaped up as a desirable destination as people begin traveling again.

Asia tour operators are reporting a resurgence of bookings for tours of Japan this year, with individuals and families, as opposed to groups, comprising the bulk of the bookings. Above, a street corner in Tokyo. "I think it has caught attention because it appears to be a shorter distance, it's perceived as safe, and it's attractive for families," said Fish.

Other contributing factors mentioned by Asia operators include the favorable exchange rate for Americans. The dollar is worth about 133 yen. It was worth about 115 a year ago.

Fish said Absolute Asia is seeing more growth in independent travel rather than group travel.

This trend distinguishes Japan from most of its neighbors, where there has been a resurgence in group travel interest, according to Dustan.

"In the last few months, people are considering group travel again for most of our destinations," she said. "But in Japan, people mostly travel on an FIT basis. You can do a lot on your own there."

Tina Perkins, Asia operations specialist for General Tours-TBI Tours, said, "We're seeing a larger increase in FIT than in escorted travel."

Perkins said the demand for Japan also has brought some surprises, naming Nara and Hakone as two of the "big destinations" this year.

Fish said he also has seen a boost in family travel in Japan, which is a trend Japan shares with most other destinations in the post-Sept. 11 world.

There exists another trend in which Japan mirrors the overall travel industry -- travelers are booking their trips closer in than before.

"People are making last-minute plans," said Fish, citing clients booking for March in late February."

The inauguration of American Airlines' nonstop service from New York (Kennedy) to Tokyo on April 15 could boost traffic even more, Kobori said.

In Japan, the resurgence has been accomplished without major price reductions, Fish said.

World Cup, USTOA could lift tourism

NEW YORK -- A couple of timely events could go a long way to help bolster the future of Japan tourism.

First off, the U.S. Tour Operators Association is holding a meeting in Japan through March 17, with 44 operators scheduled to attend. This bodes well for Japan.

"The purpose is to expose Japan to the members who are interested in selling it," said Bob Whitley, USTOA president.

"Eighteen countries bid on this meeting. The fact that the members chose Japan is an indication there is interest."

The Japan National Tourist Office said it also hopes to get some mileage from the World Cup soccer tournament, which will be held in South Korea and Japan May 31 to June 30.

Mamoru Kobori, director of the New York JNTO, said 50,000 Americans are expected to travel to Japan for the occasion. -- D.C.

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