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Accelerating Disaster Recovery with Tourism Affected areas struggle with fading memories and reputational damage Yasushi Kobayakawa Editorial Division Jiji Press Sendai Branch [Date of Issue: 30/September/2016 No.0259-1020]

Date of Issue: 30/September/2016

Accelerating Disaster Recovery with Tourism
Affected areas struggle with fading memories and reputational damage

Yasushi Kobayakawa
Editorial Division
Jiji Press Sendai Branch

Five and a half years since the Great East Japan Earthquake, rebuilding stressed local economies is a key issue. Public interest is dwindling as memory of the event fades, but the reputational damage caused by the nuclear power plant accident has proven deep-rooted. Around Tohoku, resources are being channeled into tourism as a way of accelerating the recovery process.


Top priority on reviving affected livelihoods

The government-designated “intensive reconstruction period” has now ended and the “reconstruction and revitalization period” begun, with reconstruction work continuing particularly in tsunami-hit coastal areas. Almost 150,000 evacuees are still living in temporary prefab housing, and reviving the livelihoods of disaster victims remains the top priority.

Progress has been made on infrastructure restoration and reconstruction. With the exception of the JR Joban Line and the Sanriku Coastal Road, most rail and road restoration work has been completed. Agriculture has begun again on tsunami-flooded farm land, and business is also resuming in the marine processing industry, which lost many facilities to tsunami waves.

It is taking longer to build communities and deal with evacuees. According to the Reconstruction Agency, only around 60 percent of the planned public housing for disaster victims has been built, and only 50 percent of relocations to higher land have been completed. Many people are still living in temporary housing, and psychological care for disaster victims and community-building in new housing zones have become key tasks. In Fukushima, where the earthquake and tsunami damage was compounded by a nuclear power plant accident, a number of “difficult-to-return” zones remain, making for a difficult road ahead.

2016 designated as “First Year of Tohoku Tourism Recovery”

In addition to infrastructure development, economic revitalization will be critical to restoring stability to disaster-affected lives. Construction work in response to reconstruction demand has now passed its peak, and we are unlikely to see any more massive construction investment from either the government or municipal authorities. Ongoing regional revitalization will therefore depend on expanding Tohoku’s non-resident population and increasing tourist numbers. The government has designated 2016 as the “First Year of Tohoku Tourism Recovery” is providing various forms of support, funding included. If active use can be made of Tohoku’s abundant local resources, tourism could become one of the main planks in the region’s recovery.

Looking at the current state of tourism, the number of visitors to Miyagi Prefecture returned to 99 percent of the pre-quake level last year. Tohoku urban hub Sendai received 22.29 million visitors, around 13 percent up on the previous year, setting a new record. However, there was a significant disparity between Sendai and the far-flung Ishinomaki/Kesennuma district, where tourist numbers reached only 66 percent of pre-quake levels.

According to one Kesennuma hotel operator, many people visited the affected areas of Kesennuma in the first three years after the quake, but the number has since continued to dwindle. Where the coastline was previously littered with major tsunami wreckage, damaged buildings have been pulled down and new buildings erected, with the local landscape undergoing major change.

There was huge debate in Kesennuma about whether a fishing boat that was swept inland by a tsunami wave should be removed or preserved as a monument, but the vessel was ultimately scrapped. According to the above hotel operator, five years after the disaster when memories are beginning to fade, earthquake and tsunami ruins might now actually have been useful in attracting tourists.

Recovery and rebuild work continues on the coast (Natori City, Miyagi Prefecture)

Recovery and rebuild work continues on the coast (Natori City, Miyagi Prefecture)

Hopes for Sendai Airport privatization

Hopes are high that Sendai Airport will help to spur Tohoku tourism. In July this year, the airport will become the first in Japan to shift out of government hands into those of the private sector, with a new company led by the Tokyu Group taking over operations. It will be interesting to see how private-sector knowhow is put to use in running an airport.

Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Keiichi Ishii and other guests were invited to attend the handover ceremony. In his remarks, the Minister noted that as a front-runner for Japan, this was an extremely important project, and he looked forward to Sendai Airport having a ripple effect across the entire Tohoku economy, helping to revitalize the region and accelerate the recovery process. Miyagi Governor Yoshihiro Murai, who spearheaded the privatization process, suggested that 2016 would be the year that Tohoku literally “took off” toward a huge increase in the region’s non-resident population.

Inbound tourism initiatives will be particularly important to airport privatization. While Japan as a whole currently attracts more than 20 million visitors a year, few of those go to Tohoku. Overnight visitor numbers to Tohoku’s six prefectures have only just returned to pre-quake levels. Even Sendai’s record high was still only just over 100,000 people. In addition to the Tohoku brand remaining relatively unknown, the region continues to be severely blighted by reputational damage from the nuclear power plant accident.

Reception commemorating Sendai Airport privatization (Sendai City)

Reception commemorating Sendai Airport privatization (Sendai City)

Identifying “star” tourism spots

Tohoku’s tourism areas are certainly not lacking compared to other areas. In addition to some of Japan’s top tourist destinations—the World Heritage-listed Hiraizumi (Iwate Prefecture), for example, as well as Miyagi Prefecture’s Matsushima, which is regarded as one of Japan’s three most scenic spots—Tohoku offers a whole range of appeals, from a profusion of nature including the Shirakami Sanchi mountain range, a World Natural Heritage site that stretches across Aomori and Akita Prefectures, and the jagged Sanriku coastline (mainly in Iwate Prefecture), to hot springs, and summer festivals. The region also boasts delicious local cuisine drawn from its rich land and sea.

Geographically too, Tohoku lies comparatively close to Tokyo. On the Tohoku Shinkansen, it only takes an hour and a half to reach Sendai, the gateway to Tohoku—a quicker trip than to Kyoto and Osaka.

However, while each of Tohoku’s tourist spots are very attractive, they are not as concentrated as the “golden triangle” of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, and they tend to be quite small. The key will be loop tourism. In April this year, the governors of the six Tohoku prefectures held a joint symposium at which they joined hands to advertise the region. The aim is usher tourists arriving in Japan from Sendai Airport as the gateway to Tohoku out into Yamagata, Iwate and elsewhere in the region.

Tohoku also needs to identify some “star” winter tourist spots. Hokkaido, which is popular among foreign visitors, draws many foreigners with its Niseko brand. Parts of Tohoku certainly receive snowfalls that are right up alongside Hokkaido’s ski fields. Rather than trying to boost tourism to the region as a whole, a more effective method could be to nurture various star tourism destinations from which tourists could then visit other tourist spots.

Seapal Pier Onagawa, a new tenant-style shopping precinct than opened last year in the tsunami-struck Onagawa port area (Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture)

Seapal Pier Onagawa, a new tenant-style shopping precinct than opened last year in the tsunami-struck Onagawa port area (Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture)

“Dark tourism” as an aid to recovery

Another key theme is engagement with affected areas. Some people oppose “dark tourism” out of concern for the feelings of disaster victims, but tourists are an important source of cash in areas with aging populations and dwindling economic strength. The more time passes since the Great East Japan Earthquake, the more memories fade. In some affected areas, storytellers offer tours where they talk about that terrible day, but the number of people participating in these tours has plateaued.

In August 2016, Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima got together with Kumamoto Prefecture, which has also suffered serious quake damage, to consider how the hit game Pokémon Go might be used to bring people to affected areas. Governor Murai has expressed the hope that the game might spur people to walk around disaster-affected areas and see what things are like today.

Amidst the complex interaction of the recovery process, fading memories and reputational damage, the affected areas are reaching a crossroads. Just visiting the affected areas—whether simply to enjoy the fabulous local cuisine and hot springs, or to extend a hand to disaster victims on the rapidly-changing coast—will help with the recovery.

(original article : Japanese)
(For the Japanese version of this article)


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