While Japan has no confirmed cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome, the highly infectious respiratory illness, the Japanese are nervous about the disease. The country's health ministry is banning organ donations from travelers who have visited affected regions, and labor unions of Japanese airlines are calling for suspending flights to Hong Kong and southern China.
The Japanese have been changing their travel plans, and this is most obvious at airports in Tokyo and Osaka, where few passengers are boarding for outbound flights to Hong Kong.
Extensive news coverage about severe acute respiratory syndrome and warnings from government officials have made Japanese skittish about heading to places hit hard by the SARS outbreak. Transportation Minister Chikage Ogi says Japan's travel industry is getting hurt.
Ms. Ogi says ten travel agencies canceled April tours to Hong Kong and southern China. She says All Nippon Airways is expected to halve the number of flights from Tokyo's Narita airport to Hong Kong. The transportation minister says she wants the government to shore up the airlines if need be.
Japan Travel Bureau (JTB), the country's largest travel agency, which has canceled all tours to Hong Kong and Guangzhou at least until next Wednesday, says more Japanese are deciding to travel domestically instead of heading overseas. Mr. Hiroshi Ueno, a manager at JTB, says SARS has become the third element hampering foreign travel.
Mr. Ueno notes that during the Gulf War in 1991, the Japanese economy was booming so the travel downturn was not severe. But with the economy worsening, Japanese have been less apt to go overseas. Add war in Iraq and SARS into the mix and, he says, the travel business is in a severe downturn.
The annual ratio of domestic to foreign travel for Japanese is about 20 to one. JTB says it expects domestic travel to increase this year, but this will not take the sting out of the downturn because international trips are more lucrative for airlines and agencies.
Officials are anxious about the triple woes of economic difficulties, war and SARS on Japan's Golden Week holiday, which starts in April and continues through early May. Golden Week is the busiest travel time of the year - and when Japanese are most likely to travel overseas.
The Japanese government has a plan, however. If the Japanese will not visit overseas, the government will bring overseas visitors to Japan. Through a $20 million promotion campaign, the government wants to double by the year 2007 the number of foreigners visiting Japan. Right now, Japan attracts less than four million overseas visitors annually.
Tourism officials say they are starting the campaign by stressing, especially to potential visitors from Asia, that Japan is not affected by the war in Iraq nor SARS.