TOKYO >> Images broadcast worldwide of Japan’s crippled nuclear complex and reports of food and water contaminated by radiation have battered its reputation as a safe destination, triggering an avalanche of cancellations by foreign tourists.
Panwadee Pacharawanich, a mother of two in Bangkok, planned this year’s family vacation at Tokyo Disneyland next month. But then Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crises struck. Even though authorities insisted Tokyo was safe from radiation leaking from the damaged power plant in northeast Japan, she quickly switched destinations to Hong Kong.
"This was going to be my kids’ first visit to Japan," said Panwadee, 38. "But when we heard about the radiation problem, we figured Japan wasn’t the right place to visit."
In Ginza, a famous Tokyo shopping district, the foreign tourists who usually throng family-owned kimono stores and upmarket outlets like Prada are nowhere to be seen. The streets are plunged into gloom in the evening as lights are shut off early due to power shortages.
"Nobody is coming to the Ginza. It looks so empty now," said Tomie Kajiwara, a spokeswoman for Taya, a 125-year-old men’s clothing store on Ginza’s main thoroughfare.
No estimates of losses for airlines, hotels and other travel businesses have been announced. A Japanese tourism official, Atsuya Kawada, said that with emergency work at the Fukushima nuclear plant and quake relief still under way, it was too early to count the cost. The Cabinet announced Wednesday that disaster losses could reach $309 billion, while a spike in radiation levels in Tokyo tap water prompted a warning to not feed it to infants.
Shock waves are spreading through the global tourism industry as companies from Beijing to Bangkok to the United States and Europe lose profitable bookings for Japan. Outbound flights from Japan are packed as foreigners and some Japanese flee but planes fly in nearly empty.
The triple disaster of March 11’s magnitude-9.0 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis has set back a Japanese government campaign to boost tourism to help shake off economic malaise. The timing is especially damaging, coming at the start of the peak spring travel season.
Japan received 8.6 million foreign tourists last year, up more than a quarter from 2009. The government hoped to boost that to 11 million this year, targeting China’s new rich and other Asians with advertising featuring Japanese boy band Arashi. Ambitious plans called for raising tourist numbers to 30 million a year by 2020.
Japan’s temples and hot springs have long attracted travelers but tourism took a back seat to manufacturing and exports in the postwar boom. Now, with growth anemic and the population graying, Prime Minister Naoto Kan says this insular society must open up.
The nation that sent a flood of free-spending tourists to the United States and Europe in the 1980s now promotes itself as a destination for skiing and golf. It appeals to young Asians who see it as a source of cool technology, fashion and pop culture rather than as a World War II aggressor.
Crucial sources of visitors include China, where rising incomes have set off a travel boom, and South Korea. Just over 1.4 million mainland Chinese visited Japan last year — second only in number to the 2.4 million South Korean visitors.
The backlash in both countries is dramatic.
Some 19,000 customers of Hana Tour in Seoul canceled trips to Japan for March and April, said a company spokesman Cho Il-sang.
Chinese tour agencies suffered mass cancellations for March after Beijing sent buses to evacuate thousands of its nationals from Japan’s quake-stricken northeast and issued a travel advisory about possible dangers.
The China Travel Service in Beijing had 1,004 tourists booked for Japan tours for March and every one canceled, according to Dong Xiang, manager of the state-owned agency’s Japan and Korea department.
The catastrophe has also cut into Japanese travel abroad, squeezing local travel industries in Asia, Hawaii and elsewhere.
Some 12,000 Japanese tourists canceled visits to Taiwan after the quake, according to the island’s Tourism Bureau. Japan accounted for a fifth of Taiwan’s 1.1 million foreign visitors last year.
About a quarter of Japanese travelers who planned trips in the next few weeks to Thailand have canceled, said Anake Srichivachart, president of the Association of Thai-Japan Tourism Promotion.
Brand Japan can bounce back, but even its official promoters say other crises have to come first.
Japanese officials are frustrated that the United States, South Korea and some other nations warned travellers to avoid the whole country, not just the northeast. That was despite an announcement by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency, that there was "no medical basis for imposing restrictions" outside tsunami areas.
"There is no immediate risk to the health of travelers inside Japan," said Kawada, the tourism official. "We would like to ask other governments to act on this objective information."
But such pleas don’t sway most travelers.
"I love Japan, and I hope to visit the country again when the situation is back to normal," said Panwadee in Bangkok. "I think it will take more than a year for us to consider a Japan trip again, because the problem of radiation might not go away too fast."
Associated Press writers Busaba Sivasomboon in Bangkok, Debby Wu in Taipei, Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong, Mayumi Saito in Tokyo and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and AP researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed.
Japan Tourism Agency: http://www.mlit.go.jp/kankocho/en/
International Civil Aviation Organization: www.icao.int
Japan National Travel Organization: www.jnto.go.jp/jpn/