Japan is preparing to offer thousands of free plane tickets to foreign travellers in an effort to rescue its faltering tourist industry, which has been on its knees since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began in March.
The Tourism Agency plans to select 10,000 successful applicants from online bids and ask them to tweet, blog and write about their trip, according to the Japanese media.
"We are hoping to get highly influential blogger-types, and others who can spread the word that Japan is a safe place to visit," the agency's Kazuyoshi Sato told ABC News.
The plan has already come under attack by bloggers in Japan, who said the money could be more usefully helping victims of the 11 March disaster recover.
Tourism figures for the period between March and June plummeted by half from about 680,000 as travellers spooked by leaking radiation from the disabled Fukushima Daiichi plant stayed away. The numbers are still down about a third from a year ago. This month, 80 members of the Munich-based Bavarian State Opera pulled out of a Japan tour to celebrate the 150th anniversary of German-Japan ties because of the nuclear accident. Japanese media reported tour bosses had flown in bottled water and radiation experts from Germany to accompany the members who did come.
The impact of the nuclear crisis is considered so serious that Japan's government has tagged 1.5 billion yen (£12.3m) to "counter harmful rumours" relating to the disaster and radiation. "When they write after coming here and eating specific products, it's highly probable they will produce reliable information, not rumours," a foreign office spokesman said yesterday. "Doing this should enable the quick dispersal of a large amount of information over a wide area."
The Tourism Agency will spend about 10 per cent of its 2012 budget on the round-trip tickets if it wins government approval for the plan. The winners, who could arrive next spring, will be obliged to pay for their own accommodation and expenses.
Japan's government says the nuclear crisis is under control and that radiation levels have fallen to safe levels in all but a narrow strip of land around the crippled plant. The claims are widely disputed. Yesterday, officials in Yokohama city, 250kms from the plant, said they had detected radioactive strontium-90 six-times normal levels on rooftop buildings. Strontium accumulates in bones and is thought to cause leukemia.
"Until the fears of radiation are gone, which looks like it will take a few years, it is difficult to see full recovery in the industry," said Masaki Sakamoto, a tourism analyst and director of Hawaii Tourism Asia.
Highlights: Tourist attractions
Kyoto The former capital is one of Japan's most beautiful places with some 2,000 temples and shrines, and peaceful meditation gardens that have influenced landscaped gardens the world over.
Mount Fuji The highest mountain in the country and one of the top tourist draws. Its beauty has seen it featured prominently in Japanese art.
Tokyo Home of the world's newest gadgets, fine sushi and lots of people. The Shinjuku district of skyscrapers is one of the country's most visited areas.
Osaka Castle Another of the country's most famous attractions and home to some 4,000 cherry trees. The arrival of the cherry blossom every year is a cherished national moment.Reuse content