World Travel and Tourism session puts focus on recovering, lovely Japan
This special report comes from Star Travel correspondent Bert Archer in Japan....
Every year for the past 12, about a thousand executives, entrepreneurs and other travel and tourism players get together for the annual summit of the World Travel and Tourism Council [http://www.wttc.org/our-mission/] to discuss the issues. Airline CEOs talk about taxes, hotel CEOs talk about occupancy rates, and for the past few years, everyone’s been talking about China.
But this year, the summit was held in Japan, and the increasingly global travel community found itself facing disaster, crisis management, and the role tourism can play in getting a nation back on its feet.
To drive the point home, the first two days of the summit were held in Sendai, the nearest major city to the epicentre of the earthquake the hit the nation on March 11, 2011. It’s the city whose airport got washed away, the one where those videos of cars being carried down the streets were filmed. It’s the city where on the day of the quake, news reporters were unable to reach anyone with a working phone or Internet connection.
Almost exactly 13 months later, on April 16, I took a bullet train from Tokyo to Sendai, passing through Fukushima (see temple photo at left), which is just one stop before Sendai on the northeastern line. I was sitting across the aisle from a couple of American seniors, both of us with cameras in our laps, looking for signs of the triple disaster we’d seen such vivid images of.
The cameras stayed in our laps.
As the train roared through town after town, city after city at its customary 300 km/h, there was nothing to see but workaday bustling. No damage, no rubble, not even any telltale vacant lots. When I heard Fukushima announced on the PA system, I expected some comment, perhaps a radiation warning, maybe a deserted train station. But it bustled like all the rest, the radiation, limited to a 20km radius around the nuclear plant, which was way out of town. A few people wore little cotton facemasks, but that was just because it was cold and flu season.
Between sessions in Sendai, I walked around the city, where hundreds had died that day. Business as usual. Most of the damage had been in the coastal area, but even the port had re-opened for business as early as April 16, 2011. The city centre’s a few kilometres from the coast, so I took the train to Matsushima Bay [http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/miyagi/matusima.html], a little north of Sendai and one of Japan’s designated three most scenic spots, with its 260 islands, some no bigger than boulders, but each with its own mythological or poetic significance. Right on the coast, 8 people were killed when the tsunami hit this small town of 16,000. The commercial strip, with its walk-up barbeque windows, souvenir shops and a string of restaurants specializing in Matsushima Bay oysters, is right on the water. Famous in Japan, these oysters are enormous – the one I had was four or five times the size or your average Malpeque, and the only one I’ve eaten in my life that seemed like it had been an actual creature rather than a serving of lemon-flavoured phlegm on a half shell. It had been more protected than many spots, with those islands shielding some of the torrent, but once again, with the exception of a single sushi restaurant that looked like it was just finishing up some extensive renovations, not a sign that anything untoward had happened as I walked down the scenic sidewalk, its blue Tsunami warning stickers still in place.
This is not to say that everything is hunky dory in northeastern Japan, nor that the country has completely recovered. But what I can tell you, and what the WTTC conference hoped to underline, is that the north is not a wasteland, that it is, in fact, with its cherry blossoms, its coastline, its temples and its extraordinary cuisine (Sendai is known for its beef tongue, which was good enough to make me break my usual no-tongue-in-my-mouth-that-hasn’t-bought-me-dinner-first rule), open for business and ready for travellers.
To make part of the point, Norifumi Idee, commissioner with the Japan Tourism Agency, put some results up on a screen of a study he had commissioned to measure the background radiation in Japan and other parts of the world. On the day the readings were taken, April 10, 2012, Sendai had 0.060 microsieverts per hour of background radiation. Tokyo has 0.051 and Okinawa 0.022. New York, by contrast, has 0.094, Singapore had 0.07 and Paris 0.054. Ontario’s average readings for this past March were as much as 6 times higher than Sendai’s. For some more context, you’d be exposed to about 40 microsieverts of radiation on an average cross-country flight [http://www.blacksmithinstitute.org/blog/?p=511].
So, it’s safe to go to Japan, even to Fukushima, if you like. But safety is the least of the reasons for going. There are the usual reasons: the aforementioned temples, cherry blossoms, etc. The fact that Japan has more three-star Michelin restaurants than France, and that even an average sushi bar will re-calibrate your notion of sushi goodness. But maybe the best reason of all to go is the fact that it has cost, and is still costing, about $120 billion to make Japan run again. And with China eating its industrial lunch, tourism is playing an ever greater role in its economy. And as the stream of executives, from rail companies, hotel chains and airlines made clear, though domestic tourism is back to its pre-quake levels, there is still a pervasive notion that Japan is off limits among the international traveling community.
This is the real lasting damage the country’s suffering. Even the prime minister came to dinner when the summit moved to Tokyo (see photo at left) to plead his case. They all began by thanking the world for its generous support after the disaster with a grace only the Japanese can pull off. And they all ended with an invitation to visit, the implications of which were clear. Cheques and foreign aid disbursements are wonderful, but what really gets a nation back on its feet is business, and tourism’s one of the best.