Japan Visitors Down By Two Thirds

TOKYO (AFP) – Japan’s earthquake-tsunami and the ongoing nuclear crisis have slashed the number of foreigners travelling to its two main airports by two-thirds, immigration officials said Wednesday.

The drop, from a daily average of 15,500 people last March to just over 5,000 in the wake of the triple disaster, looks to have derailed plans to attract a record number of foreign tourists.

A total 8.6 million people travelled to Japan last year, marking a healthy rebound from the 6.8 million in 2009 when the swine flu pandemic and global economic downturn curbed international travel.

“It is no excuse, but we set the 2011 target on an assumption that no natural disaster would occur,” said Zensuke Suzuki, an international exchange official at the government-run Japan Tourism Agency.

“We acknowledge that it is quite difficult to accomplish the goal,” he told AFP. “Honestly speaking, we cannot give a revised figure right now because the impact of the disaster, including the nuclear plant problem, is not over yet.”

The target of attracting 11 million visitors was set on the basis of a long-term rising trend, he said. Government figures show visitor numbers climbing steadily since the start of the 1970s.

Japan has increasingly looked to boost the number of foreign tourists visiting, partially to offset a declining domestic market caused by a sluggish economy and a greying population.

At Tokyo’s Narita airport, an average of 3,390 foreigners arrived daily between March 11 and 31, down 75 percent from the March last year, according to the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau.

The daily total had bounced back from a low of about 1,500 on March 19 to reach about 8,300 last Sunday.

“The number is coming back but is still well below last year’s daily average (11,500),” said bureau spokesman Takeshi Kato.

“The figure includes long-term and medium-term foreign residents who have re-entered Japan after temporarily staying abroad.”

The sharp drop in the number of arrivals coincided with the temporary closures of 25 foreign embassies in Tokyo, some 220 kilometres (140 miles) south of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

The plant has been releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere since its cooling systems were knocked out by the March 11 tsunami, which killed more than 12,000 people, with around 15,000 still missing.

Some countries have advised their citizens against travelling to Japan while a number of foreign companies moved their Japanese bases further west as a precautionary measure.

Even at Kansai airport in Osaka, 400 kilometres west of Tokyo, the number of foreign arrivals tumbled to a daily average of 1,700 between March 18 and 23, down from nearly 4,000 before the triple disaster.

“The number is increasing now, but it is still less than half the levels of normal years,” said Masahiro Nakamoto, an official at the Osaka Regional Immigration Bureau’s Kansai airport office.

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