How Japan's Earthquake Disaster Has Impacted Global Travel

An aerial view of Minato, Japan after a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami.
••• Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Natural disasters can wreak havoc on a locale's citizens, governments, and economy. They can also disrupt the tourism industry, which in many cases is the life's blood of a region.

Few natural disasters spawned as much international attention as the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. The magnitude 9.0 quake was centered 130 km offshore the city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture on the eastern cost of Honshu Island (the main part of Japan). It disrupted the seafloor and coastline and caused a tsunami that took 19,000 lives.

It caused a major nuclear incident, as well. Four nuclear power plants were operating at the time of the quake. While all survived the tremor, the tsunami caused significant damage to the Fukushima Dalichi facility. Cooling units flooded, disabling the normal process of disposing of spent fuel rods. The disaster resulted in the evacuation of the vicinity. It also put the lives of first responders and many Fukushima employees on the line.

The Effect on Global Tourism

The global tourism industry has closely monitored the lasting effects of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor issues.

Immediately after the quake, the U.S. State Department issued an advisory for Americans not to travel to Japan unless absolutely necessary. That has since eased.

When the country suffers a national crisis, Japanese people feel a sense of responsibility toward their country, and travel outside the country declines. This cultural characteristic, along with practical reasons for staying within the country, helped blunt the decline in tourism to Japan right after the quake. 

Japanese tourists to the United States are among the top visitors in the world. Tourism to Hawaii includes almost 20 percent from Japan. Not surprisingly, Hawaii lost a significant amount of tourism dollars in the aftermath of the quake. 

Hawaii also suffered from the tsunami waves hitting the islands as a result of the earthquake. The Four Seasons Hualalai and Kona Village Resort on Hawaii Island temporarily closed after the tsunami. Maui and Oahu also suffered road and shore damage from the waves. The Pride of America cruise ship also canceled calls to Kailua-Kona for a while. 

International Air Transport Association (IATA) noted that premium air travel after the quake. The Japanese market makes up six to seven percent of premium global travelers. 

Other countries that experienced loss of tourism and financial revenue included:

  • Thailand travel to and from Japan.
  • Travel from India to Japan for business purposes was down for automobile and engineering companies. Japan had recently introduced multiple-entry visas for Indians having US visas, among other marketing and tourism promotions designed to gain Indian tourism business.
  • New Zealand was significantly affected, as Japan is their 4th largest trading partner. New Zealand exports many products including aluminum and fish to Japan. 
  • Queensland, Australia also suffered from the natural disaster. They experienced a 12 percent increase in Japan tourists the year prior to the quake. Japan is the fifth largest inbound group of tourists to Australia. 
  • Nepal’s tourism also suffered a decline, as many Japanese canceled trips. 
  • Indonesia also experienced lower tourism numbers to and from Japan.

Many other countries also suffered tourism and other economic repercussions from the Japan earthquake, tsunami, and general devastation. 

Recovery Tourism

In the intervening years since the quake, the three Tohoku prefectures most affected: Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima have come up with an economic regrowth strategy. It's called “recovery tourism," and features tours of the areas affected by the disaster.

The tours serve a dual purpose. They're intended to remind people of the disaster, and also raise awareness of the recovery efforts in the region. 

Coastal regions have yet to rebound. But that is expected to change, thanks to involvement by private companies as well as government agencies.