Travel to Japan returning to normal, slowly

In the wake of the major earthquake and resulting tsunami that hit Japan in March, travel disruptions were fueled by a rising death toll, fear of a nuclear disaster plus travel warnings issued worldwide. Now, just a few months later, flights, tours and cruises are returning to normal scheduling.

“We are confident of returning the capacity to full level on July 1” Japan Airlines President Masaru Onishi told the Mainichi Daily News today noting that business travel in Japan has rebounded and Japanese tourists have also resumed making overseas trips following a drop-off after the disaster.
Passenger bookings had fallen nearly 30 percent in March, and were still down by about 20 percent for international routes and 15 percent on domestic routes in April.

Cruise lines are returning too with Royal Caribbean’s Legend of the Seas set to be back calling in Okinawa on August 1st.

“Judging from the current situation in Japan, we are well-assured of the safety of travelling to Japan. Japan has always been an attractive tourist destination and its show of great resilience in the face of the recent crisis has given travelers the confidence to visit the country again,” said Kelvin Tan, regional director Asia Pacific, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

It looks to be a long road to “business as usual” in Japan. The US Department of State downgraded a Travel Warning just after the disaster to a Travel Alert recently, signaling an improvement in conditions but still urges caution:

“Japan is one of the most seismically active places in the world. Tokyo and areas to the Northeast continue to experience strong aftershocks related to the March 11 earthquake. Aftershocks following an earthquake of this magnitude can be expected to continue for more than a year. Identifying potential hazards ahead of time and advance planning can reduce the dangers of serious injury or loss of life from an earthquake” the Department of State notes in their most current analysis.

Photo courtesy Royal Caribbean International

Luxury hotel offers rooms to victims of Japan disaster

As the world watches in disbelief while Japan is continuously rocked by earthquakes and aftershocks, business and organizations have popped up everywhere hosting benefits, donation opportunities and volunteer services to help the victims of the Japan disaster. In Tokyo, one luxury hotel is offering relief for displaced Japan residents.

The Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka was scheduled to close its doors to new business this March, but the luxury hotel is staying open for a good cause. The hotel, which once housed heads of state and celebrities from around the world, will turn into a shelter for victims of the Japan earthquakes, tsunami and nuclear disasters that have left many homeless.

According to Economic Times, the Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka, which at one point charged guests an average of $1,750 a night, will offer free rooms for up to 360 guests. In addition, guests can purchase three meals a day for less than $10 a day.

While the chance to sleep on a futon at a five-star hotel might be short-lived for these guests (the hotel is scheduled for demolition in July), it’s at least a few nights of peace and comfort for those who don’t have a next step.

“I’m feeling anxious as I don’t know what’ll happen in the future but I feel grateful that I can sleep on a futon,” evacuee Shoichi Ono from one Fukushima plant told the Economic Times.

While the number of victims from the Japan disasters continues to climb, more companies are reaching out with ways to support and help the tens of thousands of Japanese citizens who need shelter and relief. Cell phone companies are allowing free calls to Japan, and we found this list of non-profit companies where you can make donations or volunteer time.

Travel industry battered by world crises says CNN

A recent report from CNN says that the spate of world crises that have occurred in the first three months of the year has hit the travel industry especially hard. Natural disasters and political unrest have left many travelers rethinking their plans or cancelling trips altogether as they scramble to avoid a host of issues across the globe.

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan, coupled with fears of radiation and a potential nuclear meltdown in power plants there, has significantly reduced demand for travel to that country. It has gotten so bad that Delta Airlines has announced that they are cutting capacity to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport by as much as 20% through May, and suspending flights to another regional airport altogether.

Similarly, travel to Northern Africa and the Middle East has also dropped significantly as political upheaval has spread across that region. It hasn’t just been the airlines that have felt the pinch however, as disruption in travel to Bahrain, Tunisia, and most importantly Egypt, has put a dent in the cruise industry too. According to Carnival Cruise Lines more than 280 of their cruises have seen a change in their itineraries thanks to issues in the Middle East. They estimate a loss of $44 million so far, and the region hasn’t stabilized just yet.

The Middle East unrest has brought another unwelcome side effect to the travel industry as well. Any threat to the distribution of oil means an increase in prices, which is always passed on to the consumer. Soaring oil prices has led to an increase in the cost of airfares, and the dreaded term “fuel surcharge” has reared its ugly head once again too. With the busy summer travel season still ahead, it seems unlikely that oil prices will be coming down again anytime soon.

2011 is certainly off to a turbulent start. If the first few months are any indication, we could be in for one very memorable, but chaotic, year. Has any of the recent global calamities caused you to change your plans? Are you now going elsewhere because of recent events? Worse yet, have you canceled your plans to travel this year altogether?

Useful foreign phrases, Part 1: how to say, “I’m just looking” in 10 languages

I’ve frequently pimped Lonely Planet’s Phrasebooks on this site, but I swear I don’t get kickbacks from the company. It’s just that I’m a big believer in not being a). A Tourist (although, let’s face it, if I’m not at home, I am indeed A Tourist) and b). helpless.

Even if you’re the biggest xenophobe on earth–which would make foreign travel a really weird and pointless pastime you might want to reconsider– it’s hard to dispute the importance of knowing how ask “Where’s the bathroom?” in certain urgent circumstances.

It’s with such experiences in mind that I came up with this fun little series. There are a handful of phrases I’ve cultivated in various languages that have served me well, in situations both good and bad. Not only are they inscribed on the dog-eared inner covers of my trusty Phrasebooks; they’re etched into my mind, so I can summon them at will. Whether you need to ward off annoying vendors, personal humiliation, potential suitors, or would-be attackers, it pays to be prepared and know what to say, when. Since things like “Yes, No, Thank you, Please, Hello,” etc. are generally not too challenging, for the purposes of this series, I’ll leave them out. That doesn’t mean they’re not very important to learn, however.

This week’s lesson: “I’m just looking.” Invaluable for politely but firmly stating your desire to see with your eyes, not your wallet. It may not stop persistent hawkers from trying to close a deal, but at least you’re showing respect by speaking in their native tongue (or an approximation thereof). And who knows? If you change your mind, that alone may help you score a better bargain.

P.S. I don’t claim to be polylingual: I’m compiling phrases based on past experience or research. If I offend anyone’s native tongue, please provide a correction in the “Comments” section. Be nice!

1. Spanish: Solo estoy mirando.

2. Italian: Sto solo guardando.

3. French: Je regarde.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Gerry Balding]4. German: Nur schauen.

5. Czech: Jen se dívám.

6. Portuguese: Estou só a olhar.

Many languages, especially those spoken in Asia and the Middle East, use written characters. Transliteration will vary, depending upon the guidebook/translator, which is why the spelling or phonetics below may be different from other sources. Since these languages are largely tonal (and may require accents or characters not available on a Western computer), look at this way: odds are you’re going to mangle the pronunciation anyway, so just do your best! It’s the thought that counts.

7. Chinese (Cantonese): Tái haa.

8. Japanese: Watashi ga mite iru dakedesu (here’s to Japan getting back on its feet and attracting travelers soon!) To make a Red Cross donation, click here.

9. Vietnamese: Tôi chỉ xem thôi.

14. Moroccan Arabic: Ghir kanshuf.

What’s the most useful phrase you’ve ever learned in a foreign language? How has it helped your travels? We want to hear from you!

[Photo credit: Flickr user wanderer_by_trade]

Sprint, AT&T, Verizon and others offer free phone calls to Japan

These phone companies are currently offering free calls from the United States to Japan to help get in touch with friends and family:

As many phone circuits are pretty heavily congested in Japan, try and keep calls as short as possible, or use online tools like Facebook or Twitter instead.

Know of any other phone companies offering free calls? Leave a comment below!

[Photo: AP Photo/David Guttenfelder]