TIA leader in Tokyo urges 'Go to America'

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TOKYO -- The Travel Industry Association of America's international office here seemed bound for success when it sponsored its first SeeAmerica seminar in Japan late last summer.

About 150 agents, tour operators and journalists turned out to hear suppliers such as Marriott and Universal Studios explain why and how they should pitch the U.S. market.

But as the post-seminar dinner came to an end, a Hertz representative received a call on his cell phone. An aircraft, he was told, had crashed into the World Trade Center. Ever since, workers at the TIA office here have been struggling to persuade skittish Japanese travelers to resume trips to America.

"I'm sure they will come back," Kayoko Inoue, who leads the office, said in an interview with Travel Weekly here. "The problem is when."

Japan is the largest overseas market for U.S. tourism, which is why TIA chose it for one of its three international offices. Commerce Department figures show more than 5 million Japanese visited the U.S. in 2000.

When TIA opened its Tokyo office in August 2000, Inoue told TIA executives she could help increase the total annual arrivals number to 6 million in five years. Inoue, hired as TIA's managing director, international marketing in Japan, had more than 30 years of experience in the Japanese travel market.

Inoue isn't making those predictions now. Instead, she and her staff must use their experience and connections to overcome safety concerns, a troubled Japanese economy and what both she and an All Nippon Airways executive described as a Japanese tendency to follow the leader.

"If somebody says I'm not going, everybody would follow that view," said Katsuhiko Kitabayashi, ANA's senior vice president of marketing.

To Inoue that means TIA needs only to turn the tide.

"Once some people start to go, we can get the bigger numbers," Inoue said. "We need to give one more push to the Japanese consumer: Go to America."

Part of that push comes from encouragement Inoue and her staff are offering to Japanese tour operators.

In another ongoing dialogue, TIA, the U.S. Commercial Service and travel suppliers discussed the possibility of airing on Japanese TV stations a TIA tourism promotion commercial featuring President Bush.

Early next month, TIA will launch a two-week-long takeover of one of the jam-packed Japanese subway trains, in that every ad on the train will promote travel to the U.S. Concurrently, TIA will be encouraging tour operators to display "Greetings from America" posters.

Inoue expressed hope the campaign could prime the pump for "Golden Week," a coinciding of national holidays that amounts to a 10-day break this year for the Japanese in late April and early May.

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