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Thursday, Sep. 13, 2012

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Still there: People continue to live in temporary housing in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. Reconstruction in the Tohoku region has been slow and tourism has yet to recover. KYODO

Foreign tourists still staying away


SENDAI — While tourism in most parts of Japan is recovering from the slump due to the March 2011 disasters, destinations in the northeast are still struggling to woo back foreign travelers.

In many of the areas hit hardest by the quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, domestic visitor counts have rebounded, but this has been mostly due to reconstruction-related travel.

A recovery in the number of overseas travelers is still nowhere in sight, as reputations remain hurt by radiation fears.

Take for example the town of Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, which boasts one of the three most famous scenic views in Japan and has been popular with Asian tourists.

"Before the disaster, our town bustled with South Koreans and other (foreign tourists). But this summer there are so few," said Yu Ota, head of the town's commerce and tourism section.

He blamed the drop in overseas visitors on the bad image created by the fallout from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Matsushima suffered relatively little damage from last year's tsunami. It is believed the hundreds of famous islets that dot the coastline acted as buffers against the massive waves. About half of its accommodation facilities managed to reopen within two months after the quake.

Eighteen months on, with most of its hotels now back in business and railway services to the town running on schedule — making it accessible from Sendai in just 30 minutes or so by express — Matsushima is up and ready to welcome visitors.

At a glance, the figures appear encouraging. The number of visitors in July was about 80 percent the level of the same month in 2010 and the figure was 90 percent for those staying over.

Amid a nationwide movement to support reconstruction efforts in the devastated areas, Matsushima has seen an increase in domestic visitors not only from the Tokyo area and nearby prefectures in the Tohoku region, but also from the Kansai region.

Occupancy rates at hotels and inns have rebounded thanks to the inflow of construction workers involved in reconstruction and others visiting on business

However, the town has yet to regain its popularity among foreign visitors. With Chinese and South Korean tourists being the main driving force for demand, many in the local tourism industry are worried about prospects down the road.

A Japan Tourism Agency survey found the number of guests staying at accommodations with 10 or more employees in the six northeastern prefectures totaled 7.64 million in the April-June period, up 7.5 percent from the same quarter in 2010. But in terms of foreign visitors, the figure came to 49,020, just 42.4 percent of the level in 2010.

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