When Lady Gaga went to Japan for a benefit concert for tsunami victims in June, she found herself taking on an unfamiliar role that of tourism promoter. In characteristic Gaga form, she didn't hold back anything either, saying at a news conference that she wanted "to run around Tokyo, enjoy the beautiful city and kiss all the beautiful little monsters and scream at the top of my lungs that everyone should come visit this beautiful place."
The country could certainly use a pop-star plug. Japan's international-tourist numbers have plunged this year, hit by the double whammy of a record-breaking high yen and the lingering radiation concerns from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Eight months have passed since the devastating earthquake and tsunami, but many tourists are still hesitant about traveling to Japan. Connie Yang, a Singapore-based lawyer, says her family usually takes a ski holiday in the winter on the northern island of Hokkaido, but they won't be going this year. "We definitely decided not to come to [Japan] this winter due to radiation scares because we have young children, and [we] decide where we are going about eight months before our actual trip," she says. Many others likely have the same question on their minds: Is it really safe to visit again?
For the tourism industry, the disaster couldn't have come at a worse time. The country was just starting to see the results of an aggressive tourism campaign started in 2003 to boost revenue from foreign tourists as a way of offsetting the economic problems brought on by an aging and shrinking population. In 2010, foreign visitors reached 8.6 million, a 26% increase over the previous year. And as hoped, the country was becoming an increasingly popular destination among Asian travelers, particularly the luxury-obsessed Chinese. Average spending for Chinese tourists in 2010 reached $1,600 per visit close to the amount spent by American and British tourists. The Chinese also spent the most on consumer goods among tourists from major countries about $1,000 per visitor.
Optimism was so high, the government set an ambitious goal of attracting 25 million foreign visitors by 2020. Now that figure seems to be impossibly out of reach. In the month after the March 11 disaster, the number of visitors plunged by more than 60%. Foreign arrivals had begun to rebound by September Japan received 539,000 visitors that month but the numbers were still 25% lower than they were in September 2010.
The government hasn't helped make the case that Japan is indeed safe to visit again. In October there was an outcry in the media after residents in and around Tokyo conducted their own independent radiation tests and found several areas of contamination. This flew in the face of repeated assurances from the government that radiation from Fukushima had not spread 150 miles (240 km) south to the capital and didn't pose a risk to residents. A comprehensive decontamination program will finally be implemented in northeastern Japan when a new cleanup law takes effect on Jan. 1. Still, it could take years to collect and store the tons of contaminated soil in the region.
Equally worrisome is food safety. Japan has yet to establish a centralized system for detecting radiation in food products, leaving the job to local authorities and the farmers themselves. Foods like spinach, mushrooms, tea, bamboo shoots, milk and plums as far as 220 miles (350 km) from Fukushima have been contaminated with iodine and radioactive cesium, which can damage cells and lead to an increased risk of cancer. Seafood is also a major concern. In July, the waters near the Fukushima reactors were found to contain 30 times the allowable safety level of cesium-134. On Monday, however, a government official tried to prove that water collected from the basement of the crippled reactors was now safe by drinking a glass of it live on Japanese television.
Compounding the confusion over food safety was a government announcement on Oct. 28 that it would raise the allowable amount of radiation in food products with no clear explanation why. The decision has worried experts who say that food contaminated with radiation poses a greater health risk than environmental exposure. The Tokyo government is no longer taking any chances. On Tuesday it began a large-scale radiation-monitoring program of food products in shops, which it says it will continue through March.
There are many foreigners, however, who are deciding to go to Japan despite the risks. "I wasn't particularly concerned about radiation at a personal level, but very concerned and sad for the huge population that had to be evacuated," said Andy Levy, a university professor from England who visited in July and August. His tour guide, Tyler Palma, with the company Inside Japan, believes positive publicity is crucial to bringing visitors back. "It's really important that people know [Japan] is safe again and radiation levels are down," he says. Ulrich Fiedler, a gallery owner from Berlin who visited in November, said he was touring areas far from the nuclear disaster and was only in Japan for a week, so he wasn't overly concerned either. "I was a little worried about the seawater contamination because we've eaten a lot of fish," he said, adding, "If I had to live here, I'd be worried."
Many hotels and tour companies are now offering special deals to try to drum up business. One ski company, SkiJapan.com, says it's giving away free nights at hotels to attract customers this winter. Traditional inns are also running promotions. The Kashiwaya Ryokan in Gunma prefecture northwest of Tokyo is offering rooms at half price to foreigners on the condition they post impressions of their stay on TripAdvisor and Facebook. And the Japan Tourism Agency announced in October a proposal to offer free round-trip airfare to 10,000 foreign residents next year, pending budgetary approval.
With incentives like these, there may not be a better time to go to Japan.