5 years on, ‚reconstruction tourism‘ provides boost for disaster-hit areas

The skeleton of the local disaster prevention headquarters gutted by the March 11, 2011 tsunami is seen in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, in this 2015 file photo. (Mainichi)

Areas devastated by the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit eastern Japan five years ago are putting effort into „reconstruction tourism,“ inviting people to places where tourist numbers collapsed in the wake of the disaster.

In the Miyagi Prefecture town of Minamisanriku stands a reminder of the quake and tsunami: the local disaster prevention headquarters. The structure was gutted by the tsunami on March 11, 2011, and 43 people there including town officials lost their lives. It has been decided to keep the structure standing until March 2031, under the administration of the Miyagi Prefectural Government, and a fence has been placed around the building while work to strengthen it is carried out.

In mid-February Shun Ito, 40, a worker at Minami Sanriku Hotel Kanyo, addressed a group of about 30 tourists in front of the building.

„Here two workers remained until the very end, calling over the wireless system for people to evacuate,“ he said. Tourists placed their hands together in prayer and wiped away tears as they each pictured the events that occurred there five years ago.

Minami Sanriku Hotel Kanyo began operating a „storytelling bus“ in February 2012, taking hotel passengers to areas hit by the tsunami over the course of about an hour, with its workers serving as storytellers. Over 100,000 people have taken the tour.

For those who suffered in the tsunami, the disaster prevention headquarters is a place of bitter memories, and some say it shouldn’t be turned into a tourist area. But Ito underscores the importance of bringing people to see the remains.

„It’s a place where many people come and place their hands together, and there is a congregation of warm feelings. We hope that by coming here, people will begin to realize what’s important in life,“ Ito says.

The proprietress of Minami Sanriku Hotel Kanyo, 53-year-old Noriko Abe, visited the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima two years after the disaster, and gained a renewed awareness of the power associated with the remains of a place.

„We should make Minamisanriku for people across the world to learn about disaster prevention and mitigation — this once-in-a-millennium disaster also happens to be a once-in-a-millennium learning opportunity,“ she says. The Minamisanriku Tourism Association in October last year launched a two-day program titled „Bosai Camp Sonae“ in which people learn how to flee from a tsunami and experience staying in a shelter.

For municipalities whose populations declined in the wake of the March 2011 disasters, reconstruction tourism provides a way to help them overcome the disasters. And the central government plans to support revival of tourism in disaster-hit areas. In a news conference on March 10, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated, „This year will be the first year of the restoration of sightseeing in the Tohoku region.“ He indicated that the government aims to boost the number of inbound travelers.

In terms of educational visits, results are already starting to show. In 2014, about 57,000 children from outside Miyagi stayed in the prefecture during trips — roughly 95 percent of the pre-disaster level. And since 2012, the numbers of visitors to Iwate Prefecture have topped the number seen in the year before the earthquake and tsunami.

Fukushima Prefecture saw the number of people staying in the prefecture drop to one-fifth of pre-disaster levels following the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, but in fiscal 2014, it had worked its way back to around half of pre-disaster levels.

Between January and February this year, about 220 second-year students from Nanchiku High School in Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture, visited the Fukushima Prefecture city of Koriyama and the Miyagi Prefecture town of Minamisanriku, where officials and residents told them about decontamination work and their experiences in the disasters.

Year-head Tsuyoshi Masuda said it was easy for students and their parents to understand the purport of the visit.

„In Kyushu we see few reports, and there’s an image of restoration work having been completed, but the students came into contact with the real situation and listened earnestly,“ he says.