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Chris Jones

Japanese Returning to Las Vegas

4 October 2004

Saying sayonara to a recent widespread reluctance to travel abroad, an increasing number of Japanese are expected to visit the United States this year, a new study says.

Local travel leaders are optimistic Japan's 2004 travel renaissance will be a boon to Las Vegas, which has seen a steady decline in Japanese visitor counts in each of the past three years.

This year's Las Vegas-area Japanese visitor count won't be available until well into 2005, but the Travel Industry Association of America, a Washington-based trade organization, in September released a research study that focused on Japanese travel demand within the United States.

The 35-page study found Japan's improving economy has renewed its citizens' consumer confidence, a key component in their willingness to travel. Coupled with the yen's strength against the dollar, the association has estimated the number of Japanese visiting this country will this year climb by 7.2 percent to 3.4 million.

"All signs point to robust growth in Japanese arrivals to the United States," the report read.

Kyosuke Okada, who represents the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority in Japan, said few foreign cities will benefit from that turnaround more than Las Vegas.

"Among major destinations in the U.S. mainland, Las Vegas has been and still is the number one selling destination for tour operators," Okada wrote Friday in an e-mail from Tokyo.

Las Vegas' market share among various tour operators ranges from 30 percent to 60 percent, Okada added. That's particularly important in Japan, where tour companies and travel agencies book more than 70 percent of all overseas trips, TIA's survey said.

Okada said the outbreak of bird flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome, terror threats and U.S.-led invasion of Iraq kept many Japanese from traveling last year. Those concerns had an opposite effect in 2004, however.

"The pent-up demand for outbound travel in general from Japan is very strong this year as Japanese people refrained from traveling last year due to various negative factors," Okada said. "Naturally, they are tired of staying home and they started to travel again earlier this year."

Though many Japanese come here after arriving at a different U.S. city, Tokyo-based Japan Airlines has offered direct service to McCarran International Airport since 1998.

The company halted its then four weekly Las Vegas flights for about five months following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and subsequent concerns surrounding last year's health and political concerns caused the cancellation of several flights here in early 2003.

Business has bounced back this year. Through August, JAL carried 55,129 passengers through McCarran, up 46 percent compared with the same eight-month period a year ago.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated 168,000 Japanese visited the Las Vegas area.

This year's gains are welcome, but Las Vegas is still projecting well below its 2000 level, when an estimated 511,000 Japanese came to town.

That year, JAL's passenger count through August was 81,857, or 32 percent better than this year despite competitive direct-to-Japan service operated four years ago by Northwest Airlines and charter operator All Nippon Airways.

Northwest pulled its Las Vegas-Japan flights in early 2001, a move one local observer said resulted from JAL's strong ties to Japanese tour group operators. All Nippon last flew here in 2002.