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Japanese Say Sayonara to California : Drop in Tourism Blamed on Disasters, Crime and Finances

May 12, 1994|CHRIS KRAUL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The number of Japanese tourists coming to California is expected to drop sharply this year to a level that is only about half of what it was five years ago, state tourism officials said Wednesday.

The steep decline--which began in 1990--has coincided with the state's increasing problems, including the spread of violent crime. State officials expect the number of Japanese visitors to fall to about 600,000 in 1994.

The shrinking number of Japanese visitors is particularly bad news for the state's economy. They are big spenders, averaging $3,000 per trip per person, among the highest of any foreign visitors.

Japan sent more tourists to California last year than any country except Mexico. And tourism is one of the few economic sectors in which the United States has maintained a favorable balance of trade with Japan. In 1993, Japanese tourists spent about $10 billion more here than U.S. tourists spent in Japan. California counts tourism as its third-largest export.

The decline is certainly not all California's fault. Japan is in the midst of its worst postwar recession, an economic malaise that has drained many Japanese of their wanderlust. Total Japanese visitors to the U.S. in 1993 were down 3% from the previous year.

The downward trend in California is so dramatic that officials took action last year with a $23-million tourism marketing program in Japan--a campaign highlighted by a visit from Gov. Pete Wilson.

"Japanese tourism is a major contributor to the state's economy," said John Poimiroo, director of the California Division of Tourism, a state agency. "Attracting 10 Japanese travelers to the state is equivalent to selling one U.S.-made car or selling five computers in Japan."

A survey by Poimiroo's agency of tourist-related businesses throughout the state indicates spending by Japanese tourists in the first three months of this months is down nearly 25% from the first quarter of 1993.

Few in the state are expecting Japanese tourists to reappear in droves anytime soon. The images of the Northridge earthquake, the fires in 1993 and the riots in 1992 made big impressions on most Japanese, said Shigehisa Sako, Japanese vice consul in Los Angeles.

"We've had a series of unhappy events in the last two or three years . . . that are affecting Japanese who want to come to the United States," Sako said. "Our position is to encourage people to come to America to promote the relationship between the two countries. . . . I hope this is a short-term situation.

But perhaps the most traumatic event of all was the March killings of two Japanese students in a San Pedro supermarket parking lot. The killings, which occurred during a carjacking, made a huge impact in Japan, where violent crime is low and handguns are strictly controlled.

The incident struck home because so many Japanese families send their children to the United States, especially to California, to learn English.

"The news media in Japan shows (the news of crimes and natural disasters) because the parents want to know how dangerous it is," said Masaya Shirao, 27, a tourist visiting San Diego on Wednesday.

Despite her fears, Shirao said she came to California anyway. "There are many places to visit and people are friendly, cheerful and generous," she said.

Michael Collins, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted that "there are images that have been punishing . . . but they are not uniquely Los Angeles."

Nevertheless, California's share in the Japanese tourism market has slid from 37% of all visitors to the United States in 1987 to 27% in 1993, said Addison Schonland, a manager with CIC Research, a San Diego company that tracks tourism trends for the state.

"That's a huge drop," Schonland said.

Staying Away

The number of Japanese tourists visiting California has declined during the past five years and is expected to continue to fall in 1994. Tourism officials blame state's crime and natural disasters, as well as Japan's recession.

JAPANESE VISITORS TO CALIFORNIA 1989: 1.081 million 1990: 1.031 million 1991: .837 million 1992: .785 million 1993: .822 million 1994: .600 million*

TOTAL FOREIGN VISITORS TO CALIFORNIA 1989: 4.9 million 1990: 4.939 million 1991. 5.024 million 1992: 4.946 million 1993: 5.020 million 1994: 5.416 million* * projected

Sources: California Division of Tourism; CIC Research , Inc.

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