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Japan earthquake: Travelers and tour companies take a wait-and-see approach on upcoming trips

March 14, 2011|By Mary Forgione | Los Angeles Times Daily Travel & Deal blogger
(Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images )

As Japan grapples with the aftermath of its devastating earthquake and tsunami, the travel world also struggles with how to respond.

Airlines already have offered refunds and waived change fees to passengers whose flights were immediately affected. The U.S. State Department updated its travel alert Sunday to include aftershocks, power outages and evacuations tied to the threat of a nuclear meltdown as reasons Americans might want to avoid traveling to Japan right now.

But many travelers and tour operators are still mulling whether to continue with their plans in the next few months. "Normally, we don't have a feel for about a week until after the event has happened," says Linda Kundell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Tour Operators Assn. "That's when you get more information and see if people are canceling."

The end of March, traditionally the beginning of cherry blossom season, April and May are peak times to visit Japan. Some companies have contacted their partners in Tokyo and other parts of the country to see whether upcoming trips are viable.

"We have four different programs going to Japan in spring," said Max Ali of SITA World Tours. "Obviously, we're not operating any of them." The five-, 10- and 14-day land tours that SITA usually runs at this time of year have been canceled through the end of April.

Why that date? "No scientific reason. it's based on the feedback from local agents there," Ali said. "They said it might take a few weeks to get back to normal in terms of tourist operations. It's just the uncertainty." The company is offering full refunds (no travel insurance required) or rebookings to the 71 clients affected so far. The cancellation represents about $200,000 in lost tour revenues, Ali said.

Abercrombie & Kent has a high-end Classic Japan tour that runs March 31-April 10. The cost for this trip that highlights Tokyo and Kyoto starts about $9,000 per person. Spokeswoman Jean Fawcett said in an e-mail Monday that the company is monitoring the situation but had not canceled the trip.

Tourists coming to Los Angeles from Japan also have been affected. Thomas Staley of Destination Japan, a tour operator that specializes in bringing Japanese tour groups to the United States, reports that 150 tourists who were due to arrive in L.A. last weekend had canceled. More cancellations were expected, he said.

Graham Kingsley of World Nomads travel insurance company offers this advice to those on the bubble. "Your tour operator should also be able to give specific advice about regions and disruption to travel plans," he said in an e-mail Monday. "The Internet can also provide excellent information in this regard, and many people are turning to social media to find local relevant information in real time.

"Morally I think that if you're visiting a part of Japan that has not been affected, you should support local tourism at what is a difficult time and continue with your trip."

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