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U.S., Japan Sign Accord to Boost Travel Industries

Tourism: Joint panel will work to regain the drop-off since Sept. 11. L.A., other top destinations will take part in promotions.


Concerned about the severe drop-off in travel since the September terrorist attacks, the United States and Japan have signed a pact to promote tourism between the two nations and give a boost to their respective travel industries.

The bilateral agreement, signed Friday in Tokyo by U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans and his Japanese counterpart, Transport Minister Chikage Ogi, primarily calls for creating something called a tourism expansion council that will consider how to increase the number of tourists by 20% over the next five years.

Japanese tourists to the U.S. spend about $10 billion a year, more than one-tenth of which is spent in California. But travel from Japan dropped more than 50% immediately after the attacks and remains at about 60% of pre-Sept. 11 levels, according to the Commerce Department. Likewise, travel to Japan from the U.S. dropped nearly in half and has not rebounded significantly, according to the Japan Travel Bureau.

"We have to be aggressive when it comes to Japan," said Trevor Francis, a Commerce Department spokesman. Japanese tourists "account for around $10 billion in visitor spending here, more than any other market, and they're continuing to rebound more slowly than any other market."

The Japanese have been by far the biggest tourist group to California, where more than 1 million visitors spent $1.2 billion statewide in 2000. Last year, that number dropped to 692,000 visitors.

Los Angeles is the top mainland destination for Japanese visitors, who spent nearly $500 million here last year.

"Obviously, [the agreement] is driven by the significant decline in tourism seen on both sides of the Pacific," said George Kirkland, president of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau and co-chair of the initiative.

Kirkland, who traveled to Tokyo for the pact's signing, said the 20% growth target over the next five years may not sound like a lot, but it is relatively ambitious compared with the Commerce Department's projection of about 3% growth during the same period.

The 4% annual target is a national average, he added, which means gateway destinations such as Los Angeles and Honolulu probably will fare better.

In the past, the tourism industry has seen a lot of feel-good initiatives that didn't accomplish much.

"The last thing anyone needs in the travel industry is another expression of goodwill," Kirkland said.

U.S. promotion in Japan has been marked by a series of narrow efforts by individual states and cities.

What officials hope this agreement will offer, Kirkland said, is a chance to mount a national marketing campaign to encourage Japanese to travel to the U.S. at a time when other countries also may be trying to pick up market share.

Branding and promotion take money, he acknowledged, and it remained unclear how much will be put into the campaign, or how much additional money individual states and cities will want to pony up for a more broad-based initiative.

"Certainly, you can't win this battle with public relations alone," he said. The plan calls for joint initiatives in marketing and advertising, security and safety, among other areas.

San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York, Washington and Honolulu also plan to participate in the initiatives, as will representatives from the airline, hotel and other travel-related industries, Commerce Department officials said.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, has come through the last seven months better than other travel destinations.

Originally, the Los Angeles visitors bureau had projected an 18% decline, compared with a 20% drop for the U.S. as a whole. But L.A. has had a 16% drop-off in tourists since Sept. 11.

Based on numbers gathered this year, the bureau's researchers said they are "guardedly optimistic" that Japanese visitors to Los Angeles will increase about 6% over 2001--to about 604,000 tourists.

That translates to $522 million in visitor spending, said researcher David Sheatsley.

"We do believe L.A. will recover faster than the U.S.," he said. "But we lost something like $108 million in visitor spending from Japan last year, and you just can't take that lightly."

Because the Japanese government is supporting the bilateral tourism promotion, officials are hopeful it holds a better chance of encouraging risk-averse travelers to return to the U.S. After Sept. 11, many Japanese-based businesses imposed an embargo on overseas travel that was lifted in February.

"We hope it will send a strong message to Japanese tourists, who tend to be more sensitive than other markets when it comes to traveling and safety concerns," said Patti MacJennett, international marketing director for the L.A. visitors bureau. "With their government urging them to travel again, it's a more credible message. At this point, it may very well mean more to them than anything else."


Bonnie Harris reported from Orange County and Mark Magnier reported from Tokyo.

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