10,000 foreigners will be given free round-trip tickets to Japan next Year!

In an effort to boost tourism to Japan, 10,000 foreigners will be given free round-trip tickets to the country in the next fiscal year as part of a campaign to reverse the plunge in tourists since the March 11 disasters and amid a prohibitively high yen.

The project would only cover travelers’ airline fees: visitors would have to pay their own food, lodging and other costs. Still, if implemented, it will cost about ¥1.1 billion ($14.3 million). That’s roughly 10% of the tourism agency’s overall 2012 budget appropriation request, and an indication of how serious the tourism slide may have become. The national budget is expected to be approved in parliament next March.

“First and foremost, we will need to show (the world) that Japan is a good place to visit,” Kameyama said.

“Since the earthquake, the number of visitors has dropped drastically, so to make an impact we think it’s necessary to have this many people (10,000) come to Japan,” said Shuichi Kameyama, a Japan Tourism Agency official, on Tuesday. The stats confirm the slide: The number of foreign visitors in Japan dropped 32% to 546,800 people in August compared to the same period the previous year, marking the sixth consecutive monthly decline, according to official numbers from the Japan National Tourism Organization, the operational arm of the national tourism agency.

Between the yen and the nuclear issue, near-term recovery prospects appear bleak, despite a long catalog of video testimonials from famous faces encouraging wavering tourists to visit Japan on the national tourism organization’s website. The site also includes a wealth of information on the latest radiation readings, though it remains to be seen whether that offers reassurance or an unwelcome reminder of the lingering nuclear crisis.

The hope is that Japan’s allure as a tourist destination can recover via word of mouth if people do actually take the trouble to visit. In return for a free flight, participants will be asked to share their experiences in a report to be published online. Online applications for the promotion will open next April, if all goes according to plan, and the agency will select the candidates by early summer.

One ray of hope for Japan’s beleaguered tourism industry, and perhaps an indication of where future marketing efforts might be usefully focused: In awards announced late last month, readers of British daily The Guardian voted Japan their favorite long-haul travel destination, while Tokyo was elected favorite overseas city destination, for the second year running.

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