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Japan wants to attract European visitors

The nuclear disaster of 2011 plunged Japan's tourism industry into crisis. That seems to be over now. For the first time, the number of tourists visiting Japan exceeds the number of Japanese visiting other countries.

Dressed in cotton-kimonos locally known as Yakutas Japanese are strolling around the picturesque alleys of the spa Kinosaki recuperating. As they walk around, they pass several restaurants and delis offering sake-cookies and chocolate mixed with green tea. Three young men who have dyed their hair blonde are heading to a video game pub nearby, elderly couples choose to take walks. Wearing their Yakutas they are perfectly dressed to go bathing between shopping and karaoke. They can do this here outdoors, in hotels or at spa houses.

Spa Kinosaki is becoming popular with Europeans

According to Lonely Planet, the famous guidebook, Kinosaki, a village with 4,000 inhabitants, has the most beautiful thermal baths in Japan. Kinosaki is in Hyogo, a province in south west of the country. As a result, more and more Europeans come to experience the spa. Japans tourism authorities want this number to increase in the next years. The nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011 hit the tourism sector hard, but the tide is turning: the number of foreign travelers is sharply rising.

In 2010 8.6 million foreigners went to Japan. In 2011, less than the half of that chose the country as their holiday destination. In 2014, more than 13 million people visited Japan. This number grew to more than 19 million in 2015. Last year Japan recorded that the number of tourists visiting Japan exceeded the number of Japanese visiting foreign countries for the first time.

“And then the tsunami came…”

The so called “onsen” – hot springs heated by volcanic activities – lure tourists to the thermal baths like Kinosaki. The onsen belong to the Japanese bathing culture. “Japanese love to spend their weekend in an onsen,” says the local Ayumi Honda, 42. “We take our family or friends with us and we sleep in a ryokan.” Roykans are hostels, traditionally furnished. The guest rooms have futons where people can lay on the tatami-matted floors.

Ayumi Honda was born in Osaka and studied in France. For eight years she worked at a travel agency sending Japanese tourists to Europe. Honda wanted to spend more time at home, so she passed the exam of a travel guide. In 2011 she qualified to practice “and then the tsunami came and all travel was cancelled,” remembers Ayumi Honda.

A lot of money to boost tourism

Ayumi Honda had no work for one year and muddled through as a translator. The tourism crisis also hit Kyoto, the former Imperial capital of Japan. It is around 500 kilometers southwest of Fukushima. With 1,600 Buddhistic temples, 400 shino-shrines, palaces, gardens and museums Kyoto is the most popular travel destination in Japan. A lot of these famous buildings were declared World Heritage Site in 1994 by the UNESCO.

After the nuclear disaster the city and the region forked out huge sums to boost tourism. The district payed tour operators 100,000 yen (800 euros) for each group of 20 tourists. Shigemitsu Tada, leader of the regional tourism authority, said that the campaign cost about 150,000 euros.

“Japans tourists regions are safe”

Apart from Kyoto, other regions are receiving more and more visitors. The Ministry of Foreign Affair has been sending out the message that Japan is a save travel destination except for evacuated areas around Fukushima. These areas are far away from the typical tourist routes.

Most travelers are from the neighboring Asian countries: Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand. Among Westerners Australians and US-Americans are the most frequent. The French are the most common European travelers with 214,000. Germans are also regular visitors with more than 162,000 tourists.

Japan and its tourist attractions

In total Japan has 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Three of the country’s regions merged to advertise typical Japanese spas, the Hyogo-storks park and the fisher harbor of Ine at the Japanese sea to potential visitors in Europe. European tourists, known as interested in culture, are popular.

“The Chinese come in crowds to do shopping”, says Samantha Barrow. The 24-year old English woman works for a tourism department in Tokooya. “The Europeans are known for being polite, proper, friendly, rich and chic.”

Radiated ghost-towns as tourist destinations

Following the Fukushima disaster first tourists returned. The town of Namie is only eight kilometers away from the damaged nuclear power station. Following the catastrophe, which was caused by an underwater earthquake, the entire town was evacuated. Now, five years later, the radiation is still so high that to date no resident has been allowed to return to Namie.

“In the Fukashima region you can see how devastating a nuclear accident can be”, says tourist guide Shinichi Niitsuma. He adds, “I want visitors to see this deserted ghost town, this place of despair.” The 70-year-old is one of ten volunteers who guide tours through the abandoned town and region.

During the tour Niitsuma with the help of a dosimeter ensures that visitors are not subjected to too much radioactivity. Most visitors are shocked by the sheer extent of devastation. “TV and newspapers report that reconstruction is going on and that life here is returning to normal, but the reality is that nothing has been done here”, says outraged 42-year-old Chika Kanezawa, who is taking the guided tour.

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