Japan suffers record fall in foreign visitors

TOKYO, April 14, 2011 (AFP) - The number of foreign visitors to Japan suffered its biggest ever decline in March, falling by 50 percent, as a massive earthquake and tsunami scared travellers away, the government said Thursday.

Many foreign governments urged their citizens to stay away from Japan after the biggest earthquake ever recorded there triggered a deadly tsunami and the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

Just 352,800 foreigners arrived in Japan in March, 50.3 percent fewer than the same month in 2010 and the largest decline ever recorded, the Japan National Tourism Board said.

"Visitors decreased as media reports about the quake and nuclear accident worldwide prompted authorities overseas to issue advice to their citizens to refrain from visiting Japan," a government tourism official said.

The March 11 disaster was the worst to hit Japan since World War II, and is now known to have killed 13,456 people, with another 14,851 still unaccounted for.

It has derailed a target of attracting 11 million visitors to the country, set on the basis of a long-term rising trend since the start of the 1970s.

A total 8.6 million people travelled to Japan last year, marking a healthy rebound from the 6.8 million in 2009 when the swine flu pandemic and global economic downturn curbed international travel.

Japan has been looking to boost the number of foreign tourists visiting, partially to offset a declining domestic market caused by a sluggish economy and a greying population.