New Travel Discounts Seek to Boost Earthquake-Stricken Region in Japan

New Travel Discounts Seek to Boost Earthquake-Stricken Region in Japan

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Picture: ライダー写真家はじめ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Japan's government is rolling out a new discount package to rejuvenate tourism in the earthquake-affected Hokuriku area. But not everyone's on board with the plan.

2024 promises to be a radiant year for Japanese tourism, with projections exceeding the long-awaited recovery of 2023. The Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) anticipates a record-breaking 33.1 million foreign visitors (+131.3% from 2023) and 273 million domestic travelers (+97.2% from 2023). While the future looks bright overall, the Hokuriku region, including Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, and Niigata, might not see the same surge in visitors.

In the aftermath of the 2024 Noto Peninsula earthquake, the government is sponsoring new travel discount packages to support tourism recovery in the region. The packages will be available to inbound foreign tourists as well. However, not everyone’s on board with the plan.

A ray of hope for 2024 Hokuriku tourism

Picture: yoshihiro52 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

The plan — the “Hokuriku Support Discount” — comes in the wake of consecutive cancellations and a significant drop in visitor numbers in earthquake-hit prefectures. This initiative seeks to alleviate the accommodation burden, offering up to ¥20,000 for one-night stays and ¥30,000 for two nights or more. The subsidy could reach 50%, with discussions ongoing for a higher 70% discount in severely impacted areas like the Noto Peninsula.

This package adds to the mix of discount tickets available in the region, perfect for easing transportation costs during the winter and spring. One notable option is the JR East Hokuriku Support Free Ticket, granting 4 consecutive days of unlimited travel across the four prefectures at a mere 20,000 yen. Valid from Feb. 16 to March 12, this ticket ensures substantial savings – consider the 28% discount on the usual 27,700 yen round trip from Kanazawa to Tokyo. 

The government plans to kick off the discount initiative around early/late March, hoping to rejuvenate tourism in earthquake-affected areas ahead of the country’s famed Golden Week. This period — the only extended vacation window in Japanese calendars — attracts domestic and international crowds for a continuous 7-day break.

Recognizing this, various travel options often emerge in anticipation of Golden Week planning, like the March launch of the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Kanazawa to Tsuruga. Yet, this time, the government is bracing for possible delays due to ongoing emergencies in certain Hokuriku areas.


A rough start to the new year

Making headlines globally, the Noto Peninsula Earthquake shook Japan during New Year celebrations. Occurring on Jan. 1 at 4:10 pm with a magnitude of 7.6, it centered in Ishikawa Prefecture’s Noto region. The seismic intensity reached a staggering 7, with observed tsunami waves in coastal areas, causing damages across the Hokuriku area. The northeastern part of the Noto Peninsula, already prone to earthquakes since 2020, witnessed unprecedented human and material losses in this latest event.

The vast magnitude of the disaster plunged the entire region into despair, dealing with the aftermath consequences. As of Feb. 15, the human toll stood at 242, with 15 suspected to have perished due to disaster-related reasons. Injuries affected approximately 1,185 individuals, with nine still unaccounted for. Evacuees have exceeded 13,000 people to date.

The impact stretches beyond individuals, reaching cities and infrastructure. As of Feb. 16, nearly 70,000 houses in Ishikawa Prefecture are confirmed damaged – hitting the hardest in Wajima and Suzu cities on the Noto Peninsula. Additionally, about 27,000 households continue to face water supply issues due to extensive sewage pipe damage, and 1,400 are grappling with power outages. 

Despite almost two months since the disaster, challenges persist in its wake, and the road to recovery inches forward at a slow pace.

Public reactions don’t bode well

In the midst of all this, the Budget Committee for the fiscal year 2024 introduced the Hokuriku Support Discount. While welcomed by many as a potential boost to the region’s economic recovery through tourism, not everyone is on board. In the public hearing, Katsunori Kawaguchi, mayor of Uchinada, expressed concerns, stressing the importance of prioritizing accommodation for evacuees over tourism.

Meanwhile, the public is unsure about how to respond to the discount. A recent Mainichi Shinbun survey revealed a perfect split, with 38% on both sides – those eager to embrace it and those hesitant. Opinions echoed beyond the surveys, with people expressing unease about the measure on social platforms like X.

“The Hokuriku Support Discount is foolish. Priority should be given to the recovery of Noto. It’s problematic if there are no secondary evacuation options. Do they expect recovery to be complete by March? Until things calm down, direct support to residents would be more appropriate, I think.” (pueteen on X)

“I wish Ishikawa Prefecture would clarify whether they welcome tourists to Kanazawa. If it’s causing inconvenience to evacuees in hotels, I’m considering canceling the plan. I understand there may be confusion since it’s a decision made unilaterally by the government, but…” (@yuichi_motorrad on X)

Hotels turned into safe shelters

With a surge in evacuees and a shortage of proper shelters, inns and hotels stepped up to offer temporary refuge to those without homes. Over 5,000 people have sought refuge there, but the introduction of this new tourism program is casting doubt on the sustainability of their lodgings. Sharing her story with NHK, a 65-year-old evacuee from Suzu revealed that her Kanazawa hotel set a stay deadline, prompting her to hustle for a new apartment:

 “I have to start from scratch, purchasing appliances and bedding, and I’m anxious about finances. I knew it was inevitable, but I’ve grown attached to the current place, so it feels like starting over.”

Hotels, initially quick to open their doors post-earthquake, now face a dilemma. Concerns are mounting as space runs out for incoming tourists. In Kanazawa, room occupancy hit 70-80% in February, hosting both evacuees and workers engaged in recovery efforts in nearby areas. Kanazawa International Hotel shared with NHK that, despite their commitment to prioritize disaster victims, the inability to host spring visitors could deal a significant blow to their revenues.

Balancing economic recovery and disaster management needs, the government is treading cautiously. While the discount program was initially set for an early March launch, there’s now contemplation of a potential delay. The government is keen to avoid any perception that evacuees might be displaced to make room for tourists. PM Kishida stressed the importance of flexibility in date-setting, aiming to tailor timelines to the unique circumstances of each region.

Trapped in a tourism downward spiral

Suzu Autumn Festival
Autumn Festival in Suzu. (Picture: yoshihiro52 / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

The Hokuriku region is home to some of Japan’s most cherished tourist attractions, from culturally rich and historic spots in Ishikawa to bustling ski resorts in Niigata. Despite a notable decline in tourism due to the impact of COVID-19, the area saw a modest resurgence in 2023, welcoming a total of 115,530 overnight guests.

While last month’s earthquake caused damages across various prefectures, Ishikawa weathered relatively minor impacts, with 4,652 homes affected and a swift recovery. However, the once lively city center of Kanazawa now feels almost deserted, with tourists making rare appearances among locals and groups of disaster relief volunteers.

Popular attractions like Kenrokuen Garden suffered a nearly 40% drop in visitor numbers compared to the same month last year. Similarly, the Omicho Market — the heart of Kanazawa’s delicious food culture — experienced a decrease to about 20-30% of the usual tourist volume.

Accommodation facilities in Ishikawa prefecture are also grappling with tough times. Since the earthquake aftermath, over 26,000 reservations have been canceled, translating to a staggering loss of more than 529 million yen. And these figures stem from relatively less-affected areas, like the Kaga region in the south.

Takahira Koda, representative of Kanazawa Saino Niwa Hotel, observed that domestic tourists are pulling out even more than foreigners, possibly due to reservations about visiting disaster-stricken areas.

“If they can’t go to Noto, many people might exclude Ishikawa as a travel destination,” he added.

Compromising might be the key

This dilemma has no easy way out. Some argue that tourism might come across as too entertainment-centric, especially in the aftermath of an earthquake. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that not every region was affected equally. Embracing tourism could breathe new life into the area, encouraging spending, visits, and meaningful interactions with locals — a much-needed revitalization for communities that have been through so much.

Consider that the tourism industry provides jobs for thousands and is crucial for national economies. Dismissing this new measure as insensitive may underestimate its potential benefits. Nonetheless, it’s wise to seek a compromise, ensuring the intended travel destination is adequately prepared for this next recovery phase. 


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