|By Hugo Martin, Los Angeles
TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 26, 2011--Still recovering from March's devastating earthquake and tsunami, Japan is stepping up efforts to draw foreign travelers, even recruiting Lady Gaga to spread the word that much of Japan is safe for visitors.
As part of the effort to lure visitors before the summer travel season ends, the Japan National Tourism Organization recently posted online the radiation levels for downtown Tokyo, which the tourism group says are lower than in tourist destinations such as New York, Singapore and Hong Kong.
The summer months are vital to Japan's $16-billion foreign tourism industry, with the nation typically reporting some of its highest tourist numbers in July and August. The disaster took a huge toll on the nation's spring tourism season, when large numbers of visitors arrive for Japan's cherry blossom festivals.
Since the disaster, the government-run tourism organization has organized trips to Japan for international travel agents and travel writers, persuaded hotels in Tokyo to offer discounts to visitors and posted information online -- including video posts by celebrities and radiation levels -- to show that most of the country is safe to receive visitors.
"We've been focusing our efforts on showing people that Japan is safe for travel and that it's business as usual in Tokyo and most other major cities," said Evan Miller, a spokesman for the tourism organization. "It's fine to come here."
Among the group's efforts are online videos of race car drivers, ice skaters and other celebrities, including Lady Gaga, urging travelers to visit the country.
"I can't say enough to people all over the world that the majority of Japan ... is very safe," the singer says in an online video shot before a benefit concert in Tokyo in June.
The country's tourism campaign comes as Japan reports progress in stabilizing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that was damaged March 11 when a tsunami disabled the plant's cooling system. The plant's operator has set up an improvised cooling system, the first step in a long process to bring the plant's reactors to a state of "cold shutdown."
But Japan's tourism industry faces several hurdles, including lingering fear among foreign travelers about potential radiation hazards and increasing fuel prices that keep airfares to Japan high.
"Some people are still kind of hesitant because of the radiation," said Yuki Koguchi, manager of Japan Deluxe Tour, a travel agency in Gardena. "Summer is popular for families to travel to Japan but many are not booking because the parents are worried about taking kids there."
In addition, airfares to Japan have continued to climb with the increase in jet fuel prices over the last few months. For example, an economy seat on a round trip from Los Angeles to Tokyo on Japan Airlines costs nearly $1,300 per person, including nearly $600 in fuel surcharges.
After the disaster, the number of U.S. visitors to Japan dropped about 45% in March compared with the same month last year, according to preliminary statistics from the Japan National Tourism Organization. The tourism group estimates that American tourist numbers dropped 55% in April and 38% in May, compared with those months in 2010.
To boost the tourism numbers, the national tourism group organized a trip for travel agents and reporters in June to show the progress made in Japan, Miller said. Several hotels that previously charged up to $260 a night have also cut their rates in July by nearly half, he said.
But Miller said rising fuel costs have prevented many airlines from lowering airfares significantly to draw visitors to Japan. "It's been difficult for the airlines to offer a lot of discounts," he said.
Tourists and travel agents who have visited Japan since the disaster say the crowds at most tourist sites are few and signs of earthquake damage are rare.
Stella Matsuda, a Thousand Oaks resident, took four grandchildren to Japan for 10 days at the end of June. The package tour began in Tokyo and then headed south and west to tourist destinations including Takayama, Hiroshima and Kyoto, away from the hardest-hit areas of the country.
Matsuda said the electricity in the hotels remained on throughout her visit and she saw little evidence of damage. "All of the buildings that we saw were intact," she said.
"We felt very safe," Matsuda said. "The hotels were very accommodating."
Linda Gant, a Los Angeles resident who took her grandson on the same tour with Matsuda, said she had planned to visit Japan in the spring but delayed the trip because of the earthquake and tsunami. She visited Japan more than a year ago.
Still, she said she wasn't worried about harm from the damaged nuclear power plant because friends living in Japan had reassured her that it was not a problem.
"We really had a great time," she said. "It was a lot less crowded than when I went there before."
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