Disasters kill appetite for travel during Japan’s high season
To no one’s surprise, consumer confidence dropped during the month of March, according to the Cabinet Office , by 2.3 percentage points, the steepest month-on-month decline since April 2004. The office surveyed 4,704 households throughout Japan after the earthquake of March 11 to gauge consumption sentiments and found negatives across the board, meaning not much desire to spend money. In particular, only 30.3 percent of the respondents said they were planning to travel for pleasure between April and June, usually a peak tourist season in Japan. The portion was 3.3 points lower than it was last year, another record drop.
Golden Week falls in this period, but it’s also the time when students go on school trips. Normally, junior high schools and high schools in Western Japan and Hokkaido visit the Tokyo Metropolitan area, but one major travel agent interviewed by the internet news service J-Cast said that 80 percent of the schools planning excursions to Tokyo have either cancelled their trips “or indicated they may cancel” them. One junior high school in the Kansai area told J-Cast that it had changed its trip from Tokyo to Kyushu because “public transportation in Tokyo is still a problem and radiation in Shinjuku remains above safe levels.”
According to the Osaka Board of Education, 20 percent of its 130 junior high schools had planned to go to Tokyo and all “are thinking of going somewhere else.” An Okinawan travel agency said that 50 Kansai schools comprising some 5,000 students had changed their travel plans from Tokyo to Okinawa in the past several weeks.
Another reason for school trip cancellations is Tokyo Disneyland. Though the theme park is now fully open, its closure after the quake due to liquefaction worries and energy conservation was covered extensively by the media. It’s a popular destination for school excursions and many were cancelled for that reason. Some, in fact, will be going to Universal Studios in Osaka instead.
But even if schools are avoiding Tokyo, at least they are going somewhere. The more serious problem for the Japan travel industry is the drop in overseas tourists. Foreign package tours to popular destinations like Nikko, Hakone, and even Kyoto-Nara, which is 500 km from the stricken nuclear reactor in Fukushima, have drastically decreased. One Kyoto travel agency told J-Cast that every tour for the time being from Europe has been cancelled, and the number of foreigners visiting Kyoto attractions like Kinkakuji and Kiyomizu temples has dropped by 30 percent. Before the earthquake, the number of foreign visitors coming through Kansai International Airport averaged 4,000 a day. Since the earthquake it’s been 1,700 a day.
Nikko, which is closer to the disaster area, is practically deserted. The number of visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage site is 95 percent lower than it normally is this time of year. “I can count the number of customers I had today on one hand,” one souvenir store clerk told J-Cast. Television, one of the prime promoters of travel in Japan, is doing its part, especially for the badly battered Tohoku region, which usually sees a rush or tourism as the weather warms up. Many inns and hotels in the region have been hosting evacuees on the local governments’ dime, and some news reports covering the situation have, purposely or not, doubled as promotional features, showing the resorts’ special amenities and menus as they interview staff and evacuees alike. These reports always say that the evacuees will be out by the beginning of Golden Week, thus informing viewers that the resorts will be open for general business.
There may not be much business, but not just because people don’t feel like traveling or still fear radiation. This summer, many larger companies have said they will give their employees more time off in order to save electricity during the hottest months. Consequently, those employees may decide to work during Golden Week in order to make up for that proposed break. Then again, there are also people who, faced with the biggest crisis of their lives, have decided that they want to do something more constructive during Golden Week than lounge about in a hot spring. Yesterday, NHK reported that a Tokyo non-government organization solicited 200 volunteers to work in the stricken area during Golden Week, and all 200 slots were filled in ten minutes.