It was a sign of the times that Aya Hara, assistant sales director of the luxury Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo, made her first pitch to Hawaii travel sellers Monday during a Japan Showcase seminar sponsored by the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO).
"In Hawaii there are many people that are close to Japan," Hara said. "It has become a really important market for us."
Since the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, tighter ties between Japan and the U.S., pent-up travel demand and additional airlift have renewed Japanese interest in the isles as an inbound leisure market with growth potential, said Daisuke Tonai, executive director of JNTO's Los Angeles-based office.
"We're here because access to Japan from Hawaii has expanded, and that's really good news," Tonai said, adding that the event was organized to support Hawaiian Airlines' new service.
Since the tragedy, Hawaiian has added service to Osaka, Fukuoka and Sapporo, and on June 25 will begin service to Sendai, said Keoni Wagner, Hawaiian's vice president of public affairs.
"Only Tokyo (Haneda Airport) service was in place before the earthquake/ tsunami tragedy," Wagner said. "Our business is focused primarily on bringing visitors to Hawaii, but because of the close cultural ties and great affinity for Japan in Hawaii, we also work closely with our travel partners here to market travel to Japan on our flights. It is a small but, we hope, growing part of our business."
The event, which was attended by about 70 Hawaii-based Japan travel sellers, also provided updated information about Japan's readiness to receive travelers and the plethora of discounts available to Hawaii visitors. While Hawaii is still a relatively small inbound market for Japan, Tonai said the market is coveted because isle travelers tend to spread economic gains by visiting nontourist destinations, and a greater percentage will become repeat visitors.
"We hope to gain momentum in the market," Tonai said.
Ted Takeda of Nippon Travel Agency said regular tours from Hawaii have returned to pre-earthquake levels.
"The exchange rate is better for Hawaii people, so we have a bigger group in the spring. It's about a 30 percent increase compared to last year," Takeda said. "For us, Hawaii is the top U.S. market."
However, isle school groups have continued to lag, he said.
"Parents are hesitant to send children, but we have a lot of inquiries for next year," Takeda said.
Tatsukichi Kobayashi, executive vice president of Hawaii-based Kobayashi Travel Service Ltd., said images of recovery need to replace those of past devastation.
"We've started to see the market increasing, but it's still slow compared to other years," Kobayashi said. "Fear about radiation is affecting demand. However, I'm planning to go to that area next year."
Growing the market is critical to Japan's economic recovery, said Consul General of Japan Toyoei Shigeeda.
"Rejuvenating the inbound tourism industry, I believe, is one of the ways that will help stimulate the economy," Shigeeda said.
About 5,000 visitors from Japan visit Hawaii each day; however, Shigeeda said the number of Hawaii visitors to Japan is far smaller. Still, Tonai said the inbound Hawaii market has strengthened in the last few months and will continue to improve as word gets out that Japan is safe and has returned to normalcy.
"Our office is getting the most calls and emails from consumers and travel agents in Hawaii," he said. "We are providing updated information about formerly affected areas. People are very eager to welcome people from all over the world, including Hawaii."
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