Tourism revival in Japan's disaster-hit areas

Tourism revival in Japan's disaster-hit areas

Revitalization tourism, in which people visit ruins left by the Great East Japan Earthquake and related facilities to learn from the disaster, is seeing a revival after a slump caused by the novel coronavirus.

Now that COVID 19 has been reclassified as a category for less dangerous diseases, visitors to Tohoku are expected to increase. Local governments are developing ways to keep visitors and prevent the disaster from fading from people's memory.

The Minami Sanriku Hotel Kanyo operates a storyteller bus that takes visitors to disaster ruins in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, where 831 people died in the disaster. On the bus on June 3, hotel employee Shun Ito, 48, held up a picture of a 14-meter-high hill on which a junior high school used to stand right after the tsunami hit it.

All of the high ground was swallowed by the tsunami. The tsunami went inland and came from the mountain side, Ito told the 40 or so people riding the bus, who expressed surprise.

I realized the importance of thinking on a regular basis about how to evacuate, so that we can make the right decision in the event of a disaster, said a 63-year-old nurse from Aomori, who was taking the bus tour for the first time. The bus tour started in 2012, with 37,096 passengers in 2019, but the number dropped to 122,219 in 2021 amid the pandemic. The figure recovered to more than 20,000 last year, and 5,394 people had taken the tour by May, the same level as last year.

The number of participants in earthquake disaster study programs held in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures dropped in 2020 from 172,859 in 2019 to 74,277 in 2020, according to the 3.11 Memorial Network, a public interest organization. In 2022, when throughout most of the year there were no restrictions on activities, such as from a state of emergency declaration, the number recovered to 157,594.

Many want to listen to what people have to say in disaster-affected areas, organisation director Masaharu Nakagawa, 46, said, adding that school field trips to the area are also increasing.

To improve visitor satisfaction, every municipality is creating its own strategies to improve visitor satisfaction.

In February, the city government of Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture, implemented an experiment where a self-driving electric bus was utilized to tour the Toyota Takatamatsubara Memorial Park for the Tsunami disaster, where the miracle pine tree is located. Tourists have complained they cannot see everything on foot, which is the size of the park. New York City will again conduct the electric bus experiment next September, the city's official website said.

The Sendai city government will launch a bus service that will link the city's subway stations with Arahama Elementary School, a disaster-hit school, as well as agritourism spots and commercial facilities built on disaster-hit areas. The service will run from July to August for the summer vacation period.

We would like visitors to see the revitalization of disaster-stricken areas and at the same time strengthen the local economy, said an official in the city's tourism division.

In May, the Prefecture of Fukushima Prefecture opened a support center in the coastal town of Tomioka to encourage visitors to visit disaster-prone facilities. Three staff members from the tourism and local specialties exchange association of Fukushima Prefecture are stationed at the center to provide information on tours and develop new destinations.