Cheap yen, fading Fukushima fears lure Japan tourists

TOKYO - The 2011 earthquake and tsunami that smashed into Japan laid waste to the country's tourism industry, leaving a coastline in ruins, killing thousands and sparking the worst atomic crisis in a generation.

But, four years on, the sector is bouncing back, shattering expectations on visitor numbers, largely owing to a weak yen and fading fears about the fallout from the Fukushima disaster.

Worries about radiation sent the number of inbound visitors to Japan into a steep dive and the thought of attracting new tourists seemed an impossible goal in the days and weeks after the catastrophe.

But last year Tokyo logged a record 13.41 million international visitors, double the number of 2011 and more than half of the 20 million it hopes to attract during the 2020 Olympic Games.

Easing fears about radiation and a sharp drop in the value of the yen -- which has toned down Japan's reputation as a pricey destination - are helping to draw people like Buenos Aires native Jorge Santillan and his wife.

"That really influenced our decision," he said, referring to the exchange rate.

Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched a bid to resuscitate the Japanese economy in early 2013, the yen has dropped 20 per cent against the euro and about 40 per cent on the dollar -- making everything from sushi and sake to hotels and bullet trains a lot cheaper for visitors.

"We were checking the Internet and saw it was getting cheaper than before and so we said 'let's go!'" said French visitor Arnaud Cornillet.

Japan has come a long way from the televised images of tsunami-battered communities and workers in biohazard suits struggling to bring reactor meltdowns under control.

The Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) says the stigma of the Fukushima accident, the worst since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, has dropped significantly, though it has yet to fade completely.

But "we have said many times that radiation levels are absolutely insignificant in Tokyo and the main tourist areas," said JNTO official Mamoru Kobori.

"People understand that travelling, eating and living here don't pose a problem, as long as you avoid the restricted area around the Fukushima nuclear plant."

'Friendliness and hospitality'

Japan's industry minister Akihiro Ohta has described 15 million visitors this year as a "realistic" target, aided by a pickup in regional tourism as tourists from Taiwan, South Korea and China flood luxury boutiques in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district.

That has been helped by the relaxation of visa restrictions -- despite often-tense diplomatic relations between Japan and its neighbours.

Japan's cuisine, traditional inns called "ryokan" and the famous hot springs found in every corner of the country are top draws for visitors, said Mika Hatakeyama, Japan product manager at top-end French tourism agency Voyageurs du Monde.

"People who are delighted with (the country's) friendliness and hospitality are going back and tell others, so there is a word-of-mouth effect," she said, adding that Japan's reputation as a safe destination helped boost sales by 40 per cent in 2014 from a year earlier.

But the surge in visitors is also straining key tourist spots to capacity, including the ancient capital Kyoto where hotels are often booked solid months in advance, Hatakeyama said.

As a result, efforts are being made to persuade tourists to head to less-visited areas of rural Japan.

"We recognise that further efforts have to be made to strengthen infrastructure" ahead of the Tokyo Games, said the JNTO's Kobori.

"Building permit applications are booming and, according to our numbers, there should be 10,000 additional hotel rooms in Tokyo alone by 2020."

While Japan is aiming for tourism numbers similar to Britain or Turkey, at around 30 million annually, it would still remain a shadow of world leader France with its 80 million visitors