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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Rich Chinese offered multientry visas


In hopes of helping boost the economy in the three Tohoku prefectures hit hardest by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan has started issuing multiple-entry visas to well-off Chinese tourists who will stay at least one night in the region on their first visit.

News photo
Positive image: Chinese tourists pose for a photo in front of Tsuruga Castle in Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, on May 22. They were part of the first tour group from the Chinese mainland to visit the prefecture since the March 2011 disasters. KYODO

The new visas were introduced Sunday after a similar arrangement launched last July for Okinawa proved successful. The visit-Okinawa visas were the first multiple-entry tourist visas ever issued to Chinese nationals.

Since the program for Okinawa began, some 19,000 of the visas had been issued by the end of May. Okinawa estimates that about 50,000 Chinese tourists visited the prefecture in the programs first 11 months, twice the number in fiscal 2010.

Under the new visa arrangement for the northeast, Chinese travel agencies are required to certify that a tourist will stay at least overnight in one of the three prefectures — Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi. The visa holders are free to stay anywhere in Japan afterward.

Available only to individual tourists with a certain level of income, the visas will be valid for three years and allow the recipient to stay in Japan for up to 90 days per visit.

What remains a significant hurdle, however, is the negative image branded on the prefectures by the disaster-crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which still generates fear of radiation contamination.

"A major Chinese travel agency had to abandon an initial plan for a group tour to Fukushima during a three-day weekend in late June because no one was interested," said Kenji Kokubun, head of Fukushima Prefecture's office in Shanghai.

In May, Fukushima had welcomed its first group tour from China since the 2011 disaster, and the positive impressions many participants took home sparked hope for a rebound in tourism to traditionally one of Japan's most popular areas.

When Kyodo News surveyed about 40 Chinese visitors who took part in the Fukushima tour, 9 in 10 respondents said they would recommend Fukushima to their friends as a travel destination.

But Kokubun sees no evidence yet that interest in visiting the prefecture is picking up.

With most schools in China starting their summer vacations in early July, travel agencies have been promoting a variety of tours to popular destinations in Japan, such as Tokyo, Osaka, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Okinawa.

The three disaster-hit prefectures were not featured in any travel advertisements.

Overall, the number of Chinese travelers visiting Japan has been recovering after the sharp decline following the March 2011 disasters.

For example, the consulate general in Shanghai, which handles the largest number of visa applications among Japan's diplomatic missions in China, granted about 170,000 visas in the January-May period. This level is on par with 2010, when a record high number of visas were issued.

But Chinese tourists apparently are still avoiding the three disaster-hit prefectures. An official at China International Travel Service, a major travel agency, attributed this to strong concerns that remain over the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Still, officials in the three prefectures hold high hopes the multiple-entry visas will repeat the Okinawa success.

"Thanks to the multiple-entry visas, Okinawa has become more well-known (in China) and we've seen an increase also in the number of Chinese tourists coming on group tours," an Okinawa Prefectural Government official said.

The benefits have not been limited to Okinawa. An official at the Kyushu Tourism Promotion Organization said the visa campaign has helped attract Chinese tourists to Kyushu.

Tourism officials hope new Chinese visitors to northeastern Japan help spread the word and dispel safety concerns.

"The best way to remove the misperceptions is to have (Chinese tourists) see for themselves the actual situation in the disaster-hit areas and have them convey that to other people in China," said Kokubun at the Fukushima office in Shanghai.

"That's why we hope to have as many more Chinese people visiting as possible," he added.

Similarly, the consul general in Shanghai, Hiroyasu Izumi, said that "Wwth flights linking the Tohoku region and China almost back to normal, the start of multiple-entry visas is very timely. I hope (the number of visitors) will rise favorably just as it did for Okinawa."

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