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Slow travel recovery hampers Aso tourism

The Yomiuri Shimbun

An aerial photo taken Thursday by a Yomiuri Shimbun helicopter shows Kumamoto Castle, one of the main tourist attractions in the prefecture, undergoing restoration work in Kumamoto.

Jiji Press ASO, Kumamoto (Jiji Press) — Many sightseeing spots in Kumamoto Prefecture are gradually winning back visitors a year after a series of powerful earthquakes.

But the recovery of tourism has been tardy in the city of Aso, although it has Mt. Aso, one of the most famous sightseeing spots in the prefecture in the Kyushu region, partly because of the slow pace of restoration in transport infrastructure.

A person concerned says, “It seems that Aso has been excluded from tourists’ lists of destinations due to the persistent image that the city has still been reeling in the aftermath of the disaster,” adding, “We do hope people will visit Aso as improvements are being made in our road infrastructure.”

According to the tourism department of the Aso municipal government, the number of visitors who stayed overnight or longer in the city stood at about 780,000 in 2015.

But the visitor number in 2016 is believed to have plummeted to some 510,000, with people related to postdisaster reconstruction work accounting for as many as about 200,000.

On April 14, 2016, a foreshock with a magnitude of 6.5 on the open-ended Richter scale jolted Kumamoto Prefecture and nearby areas, registering the highest reading of 7 on Japan’s 10-point seismic intensity scale in the Kumamoto town of Mashiki. Two days later, the 7.3-magnitude main shock struck, with a reading of 7 measured in Mashiki and the village of Nishihara.

In the city of Aso, the foreshock registered lower 5, the fifth highest on the scale, and the main temblor measured the third-highest reading of lower 6.

The section between Aso and Higo-Ozu stations on Kyushu Railway Co.’s Hohi Main Line remains suspended, keeping travel by train between the city of Aso and the city of Kumamoto, the prefectural capital, impossible.

Damage to National Route 57 has yet to be fully repaired, so travel by car between the two cities requires drivers to make a detour. Last December, a prefectural road was opened, helping ease traffic congestion on the bypass.

Yet, the number of tourists has not recovered markedly.

Tatsuhiro Matsunaga, 53, an official at the Aso tourism association, said, “There may be a firmly established image that the road to the city is congested, and the road to Mount Aso is dangerous due to damage from the earthquakes.”

In September 2016, New Kusasenri, a sightseeing facility including a restaurant and a shop in Kusasenrigahama, a scenic spot near the summit of the volcano, restarted operations.

But monthly sales stand at about one-sixth of the levels before the quakes.

In response to the poor sales, the facility reduced the number of its staff to some 10 from 35, according to its manager, Yuichi Hamamoto, 39. “Even on holidays, our daily sales sometimes total only ¥20,000, because tour buses don’t visit our facility,” he said.

The Aso city government is stepping up promotional activities to win back tourists.

Last month, the city showed a South Korean travel agency chief around Kusasenrigahama and other sightseeing spots. “I’m sure that we got across to the travel agency chief a good idea of our tourist attractions,” a municipal official said.

“We want to start selling Aso tour products if regular flights to link Kumamoto Airport and South Korea are launched,” the official said.Speech

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