A year after disastrous earthquake, tsunami, travel to Japan slowly rebounds

Michael Steiner, Executive Vice President of Ovation Corporate Travel, offers his insight to msnbc.com contributor Tanya Mohn on travel to Japan after the tsunami.

Last year's deadly earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent disaster at Fukushima nuclear power plant took a toll on Japan's tourism industry, but a year later, the country's travel landscape is rebounding.
"We started to see small numbers of guests returning to Japan in September of last year," said Duff Trimble, president of Wabi-Sabi Japan, a Toronto-based company that creates customized trips for private groups. "Inquiries really started to increase last November and there was the usual surge of requests immediately following the holiday season. Quite frankly, I was surprised how busy we were."
“I’m seeing a bounce back,” said Jack S. Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations. “It’s not huge, but it’s back on people’s radar.”
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake shook Japan, and the tsunami that followed killed nearly 16,000 people, wiped out entire towns, slammed the Fukushima power plant and triggered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
Ezon has noticed a change over the past four or five months, and said seasoned travelers are among the most likely to visit. "They may be a little more intrepid," Ezon said.
Colleague Jessica K. Levy, a travel concierge with Ovation, said a few clients went to Japan recently, but “no one expressed any concerns.” One man in his 60s loved it so much, she said, “he extended his stay.”
Levy also recently visited Japan, and noticed discrete collection buckets for victims in some areas and a general sense that people are "quietly rebuilding their lives," but it didn't seem like a country that had experienced such a severe tragedy, she said.
Nearly one year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan, stunning images show what the hardest hit areas looked like then and now. NBC's Ian Williams reports.
The U.S. Department of Commerce, which tracks U.S. flights to and from Japan, including connections, said there was an initial dip in Japan-bound air traffic immediately following the earthquake and tsunami last March, but it rebounded to pre-disaster levels by June.
For 2011, the number of people flying from the U.S. to Japan dropped 4.5 percent compared to the prior year, according to data from the Commerce Department.
The decline in travel to Japan from other parts of the world was sharper over the same period, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.
There are other variables that may account for the modest downturn, said Richard Champley, a senior research analyst for the Commerce Department. For example, fewer Japanese citizens have been visiting the United States in recent years, and there are more direct flights from the U.S. to other Asian destinations beyond Tokyo, which has been a major hub.
Price sensitivity due to the strong Japanese yen and the ongoing global economic uncertainty may have hurt the rebound as much as the aftermath of the nuclear accident, added Trimble of Wabi-Sabi Japan.
But business travelers are taking the lead in the current rebound.
Initially, business travel to Japan experienced a sharper decline than leisure travel, said Stacey MacAlister, managing director for the Americas for JTB, a travel management company. Now, the increase is greatest among business travelers, she said.
“The rebound business-wise happened fairly quickly,” said Ron DiLeo, executive director for the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. “I’ve had conversations with major carriers serving the Japan market, and the load factors are all strong.”
Since last March, DiLeo said many companies have conducted education sessions that stress the importance of putting into place better procedures to ensure that employee whereabouts are more easily tracked in crisis situations. “Travel managers are telling business travelers that they need to be able to communicate through any number of ways,” he said. “But flights are full.”
Michael Steiner, executive vice president of Ovation Travel Group, said the first six months following the earthquake and tsunami were rough, with business off about 50 percent. “But it is slowly rebounding, and in recent months, is pretty much back,” Steiner said, noting that most of the travel was to Tokyo, quite far from the areas impacted by radiation.
A recent spending forecast noted that Japan had been struggling with its economy even before the earthquake and tsunami, but construction and manufacturing are among the areas that are expected to lead business travel growth over the next five years. The report was prepared by the GBTA Foundation, the education and research arm of the Global Business Travel Association, a trade group for corporate travel managers and suppliers.
“It’s one of those odd cases,” said Joe Bates, senior director of research for GBTA Foundation, where redevelopment due to the earthquake “is actually going to spur business travel,” both inbound, outbound and within Japan. Export demand is also thought to be a major factor impacting business travel growth, according to the report.
Johnson Yip, president of Pacific Protour, a tour operator that caters to leisure travelers, said until recently, his company had no business since the earthquake. “There are a couple of bookings going there in May and another few tour groups that I'm working on for June and October departure,” Yip said. “Hopefully this is an indication that travel to Japan is coming back, ever-so slowly, but it’s still a good sign.”