Even though many cherry trees in the disaster zone have survived, it will very likely take years to rebuild the tourism industry, officials warn. The troubles are many: severe damage to the tourism infrastructure, fears of heightened radiation levels in areas around Fukushima and an overall plunge in travelers in a country still shell-shocked by its worst disaster since World War II. JTB Corporation, Japan’s largest travel agency, said last week that it expected travel to fall 28 percent during a holiday period known as Golden Week, which starts this month.
Damage to tourism in the area adds to the woes of a local economy that has suffered severe blows: many fishing and farming communities were decimated in the tsunami, and many of the factories in the region are struggling to rebuild or restart production lines. In Miharu, the weeping sakura has been an important source of income for an aging farming community. About 300,000 people descended on the town to view the 40-foot tree last year, spending generously at local inns and eateries, as well as on produce.
This year, the town expected the number of visitors to fall by about 80 percent. Though the town is not affected by the evacuation zone, which is now a 12-to-18-mile radius around the Fukushima plant, visitors “are playing it safe and staying away,” said Susumu Yamaguchi, a tourism official at Miharu’s town hall. “It’s a big blow for us,” he said. In a bid to attract visitors, the town abolished its usual $3.60 viewing fee and went on a media offensive. “There won’t be any crowds this year, no traffic jam,” Miharu’s mayor, Yoshinori Suzuki, told a local paper last week.