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Quakes put chill in south Japan's hot spring tourism boom

[TOKYO] A series of deadly earthquakes on Japan's southern main island of Kyushu is threatening to quash a nascent tourism boom, frightening away thousands of Chinese and other foreign visitors drawn to its hot springs and lush mountain landscapes.

The island is targeting a 75 per cent increase in its 2 trillion yen (S$24.91 billion) tourism industry over the next seven years, said Makoto Takahashi, executive director at Kyushu Tourism Promotion Organization.

But China's foreign ministry has urged caution about travel to Kyushu in the near term and to avoid Kumamoto after the Kumamoto and Oita prefectures were hit at the weekend by a magnitude 7.3 earthquake and dozens of aftershocks.

"We were confident to achieve that (tourism) target until the region was hit by the quake," Mr Takahashi said. "But it's hard to estimate how much longer we will be suffering the effects of the earthquake."

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The number of foreign visitors to Kyushu surged 69 per cent to a record 2.8 million last year, the Kyushu District Transport Bureau said, outpacing Japan's 47 per cent rise to 19.7 million.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month doubled Japan's target for foreign visitors to 40 million by 2020, as a weaker yen and easier visa regulations sparked a rush of foreign tourists, especially from China, seeking Japanese goods and sightseeing.

A major Kyushu attraction, the four-century-old Kumamoto Castle, was heavily damaged when Saturday's quake caused a large section of the stone wall underneath it to collapse.

Oita Prefecture, east of Kumamoto, has Japan's largest number of hot springs at more than 4,300, made possible by the region's seismic activity. Hot springs elsewhere in Kyushu offer thick mud baths and hot sands where bathers are buried up to their necks.

Yufuin, an Oita town whose small, traditional-style luxury hotels had become a major draw for wealthy Asians, was almost empty on Monday.

"There are hardly any visitors here today," said Keiji Shono, an official at Yufuin-Onsen Tourism Association which groups 93 hotels and traditional Japanese inns. Some were damaged but no buildings were destroyed, he said.

Japanese real estate investment trusts that feature hotels, including Ichigo Hotel REIT Investment Corp, down 6.6 per cent, and Invincible Investment Corp, down 5.5 per cent, were the worst performers on Japan's REIT Market Index on Monday.