TT-804 (Tourism Edition) -- When Disaster Tourism May Be Acceptable

Japan Travel
* * * * * * * * TERRIE'S (TOURISM) TAKE - BY TERRIE LLOYD * * * * * *
A bi-weekly focused look at the tourism sector in Japan, by Terrie
Lloyd, a long-term technology and media entrepreneur living in Japan.

Tourism Sector Edition Sunday, May 17, 2015, Issue No. 804

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+++ When Disaster Tourism May Be Acceptable

Our travel website,, gets lots of requests from
groups abroad asking questions about how to make arrangements in Japan.
It's pretty obvious that there is a shortage of good English-speaking
ground operators here who get the basics of what overseas travel agents
want: choice and flexibility, reasonable but not necessarily rock-bottom
pricing, and patience when plans change. So it's an interesting time of
learning for us.

We were assisting one asian school group with lists of museums and
attractions in the Hakone area when the news came through that Mount
Hakone is in danger of erupting. It's understandable that the media is
hyperventilating about this, given the tragic deaths of dozens of hikers
on Mount Ontake in October last year. The fact is, though, that if
Hakoneyama did erupt, not only do we already know to stay away from the
immediate area, the eruption itself would also be "broadcast" well in
advance -- as the place is bristling with scientists and
instrumentation. Predicting eruptions is certainly not infallible yet,
but swarms of localized tell-tale high-frequency earthquakes gives
everyone a fairly good base to work from.

Furthermore, people don't realize that despite their awesome power,
volcanoes generally create a limited threat zone around them. For the
smaller eruptions common in Japan, you are going to be safe from most
projectiles when 2-5 kilometers from the ejection point, and with an
abundance of caution, 15-20 kilometers is considered safe for
habitation. The threat zone of course depends a lot on the local
topography and lava flow.

A good guide to threat zones around a volcano can be found here:

So while the school group wanted to see attractions that are a
relatively safe distance from Mt. Hakone, they have of course canceled
their trip for that leg. No point in making parents nervous, although
the students could have had an awesome experience... :-)

[Continued below...]

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This got us thinking: since Japan is never going to be free of danger
from natural disasters, how can we get tourists to embrace the
opportunity to "experience" nature, rather than be scared by it? And so
we started researching disaster tourism.

In the Tourism Dictionary, "Disaster Tourism" is defined as travel
undertaken for the purpose of visiting the scene of a natural disaster,
usually with a connotation of voyeurism. This definition pretty much
sums up society's negative view of those who travel to see fires,
floods, landslides, eruptions, and earthquakes. Considering the
logistical and privacy impact that a throng of rubberneckers can have on
a disaster site, we'd have to agree -- if there's been a disaster, stay
away -- for the first few days at least.

However, the 2011 Tohoku disaster raises some interesting questions for
us, about the disaster tourism that happened in the weeks and years
after the event. Firstly, when does the presence of tourists in a
disaster-hit area become desirable again, and secondly, just what
comprises a tourist?

Let's take the second point first. What is a tourist? When the Tohoku
disaster occurred, and on witnessing the long lines of people at Narita
airport looking to flee Japan, we naturally thought that inbound
foreigner travel to Japan would drop dramatically. However, several
months later as we commiserated with an airline CEO, we were surprised
to hear him say that business was not so bad. He pointed out that in the
months after March 2011, many foreigners and overseas-based Japanese
came to Japan to try to help out. In fact, the Foreign Ministry said
that by April 4, just 3 weeks later, over 1,000 rescue workers from 20
countries and regions had been dispatched to Japan. Add to those
official groups the tens of thousands of volunteers (Japanese and
foreign), it is pretty clear that there were probably more foreign
"tourists" in Tohoku post 3/11 than there had ever been previously.

Those people all had to eat, stay somewhere, buy clothes as they got
dirty clearing the devastated areas, and avail themselves of all the
other services needed to support a community. So while they were there
to assist recovery from a terrible tragedy, their presence also meant
income for the locals. And if some of them were there from curiosity, so
long as they mixed it with humanitarian actions, no one seems to have
minded. Wielding a shovel and bucket is certainly a lot more socially
acceptable than simple rubbernecking.

And that brings us to the first point, as to when is tourism too close
to a disaster event to be undesirable? The case of Matsushima Bay is an
interesting example.

A view of Matsushima Bay is here:

The bay is a magnet for tourists and thanks to its unique geography came
out relatively undamaged from the tsunami. Its tourist flow did,
however, suffer from fears of radiation as well as Tokyo residents'
respect for people to have privacy as they pulled their lives back
together again. As a result, tourism dropped 75% in the May-June period
after the quake, and even a year later the numbers were still down 40%.
The financial consequences were significant, causing not only hotels and
tour operators to suffer, but also the "food chain" of suppliers to the
hospitality industry, including local farmers, foresters, fishermen,
stores, restaurants, etc.

Kyuichiro Sato, President of the Matsushima Tourism Association made the
case in 2013 that tourism nonetheless played an important part in the
recovery of businesses in the area and that the whole community is
grateful for it. In Matsushima's case, the tourism came in two distinct
waves. Firstly the volunteers who showed on March 19th (a Saturday, when
people could be away from their jobs), hundreds of them, including a
group of Canadians who'd hitchhiked up from Tokyo. These volunteers
joined in with the local monks and started scrubbing the area free of
the thick black mud covering everything. By early April, most of the mud
had been removed, and work began on restoring actual commercial
facilities. By the end of July, just four months after 3/11, 95% of
souvenir shops, hotels, and other facilities had been rebuilt.

The second wave of tourists came between Golden Week and summer. Were
they there because they wanted to show support for the locals, or
because they wanted to see how bad the damage had been? Does it matter?
The fact is that without their money and traffic, the Matsushima economy
would be struggling even more than it has, and the transition from
devastation to business-as-usual is testimony to the benefit of tourism
to a disaster-hit location.

So disaster tourism is probably desirable so long as it's handled
respectfully and in a managed way. And if so, then possibly Japan should
actually encourage it -- since there will always be another disaster
just around the corner. Yes, it's a radical idea, but think of it as
planned financial assistance to targeted areas that need it. Helper-type
tourists would be looked after by a specialist travel agency, similar to
how JTB manages special interest sports events. This agency would make
future operations by government a lot easier by pre-training its
clients, and preparing the logistics that they would need.Then
separately the money-toting gawker-type tourists would only be allowed
in 6-8 weeks after the event, when the local economy has recovered
sufficiently to be able to actually service and earn income from them.

You have to admit, volcano tourism in particular would make for some
really cool T-shirts. I can just imagine one with the vivid colors of a
pyroclastic flow, stating: "I survived Mount Hakone in 2015"

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