03/11/2012 08:25 am ET

A Year After The Tsunami, Tourists Predicted To Return To Japan

Every disaster has a half life -- nuclear disasters doubly so. But, a year after a tsunami swept away much of Okuma, triggering a meltdown at the nearby plant and leading some to ponder ramifications for the Japanese economy and culture, foreigners are returning to Japan.

Thank the suits.

The island nation, which boasts the third largest economy in the world behind China and the U.S., exerts a gravitational pull on business people, who, even among rumors of fallout and water shortages, couldn't forego trips to Tokyo.

According to Malcolm Thompson, general manager of The Peninsula Tokyo, business travelers are leading the charge back into Japan. He pointed out during a conference call earlier this week that the drop in hotel room prices in the capital likely has more to do with a larger percentage of those rooms being occupied by business travelers, whose corporations often have agreements with establishments or chains.

"Rates are down 10,000 yen [$121], most [hotels] are surviving from corporate business based on volume," said Thompson.

Still, the story in Japan is not all about diminished or diminishing profits. To the contrary, a report released this week by the World Travel and Tourism Council predicts that travel to the contrary will return to pre-Fukushima levels by the end of the year while infusing the economy with nearly twice as much money as it did last year.

In a public statement, WTTC head David Scowsill said that "Japan's travel and tourism recovery has been much better than anyone could have anticipated 12 months ago."

Though stung by retreat of 62% of international travelers in 2011, Japan is a perennially popular destination that appeals not only to U.S. travelers, but to Europeans and, perhaps most importantly, the growing number of Chinese tourists looking for Asian getaways. Though the recovery hasn't been even -- Americans seemed more eager to return than the Germans or French -- it seems on the verge of being complete according to Shuichi Kameyama of the Japan Tourism Agency.

"We are forecasting a record high," said Kameyama.

Japan Tourism, which has scrapped the idea of simply giving out free tickets, is promoting travel in cities across North America, notably through a partnership that will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Japan's most notable arboreal gift during the Cherry Blossom Festival in D.C.

Kameyama says that the message his agency is looking to send to the traveling public is simple: "Everything is normal."

The veracity of this statement is questionable. While everything may be back to normal, normal has fundamentally changed. Residents of Fukushima may no longer be fleeing their homes, but they are worried about their health and the town itself is different, a model now of its previous self. Travelers looking to take advantage of the still-low fares to Japan will find a country that was shaken figuratively as well as literally.

Further inland, away from the damage, attractions have reopened and thousands of small businesses and private individuals are looking forward to a more benign boom.