IWAKI, Fukushima Pref. -- Forty-seven years ago, a new economic engine was born in Iwaki City to replace the dying coal mining industry. It was tourism, with a Hawaiian flair, at a hot spring resort. The dancers gave guests a taste of Polynesian culture in a domed tropical paradise complete with giant water slides and pools.
The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011 changed everything. The resort had to close for repairs. Tourism plummeted. By fall, tourism nationwide was down 85 percent according to travel industry insiders.
The dancers embarked on a nationwide tour to cheer tsunami survivors and encourage other residents to visit Fukushima Prefecture. In February 2012, the resort reopened, with guests lining up to get in.
The Japanese government hopes domestic and international tourists will continue to travel in Japan, especially Fukushima Prefecture. The U.S. has eased its travel warnings for travelers, reducing the evacuation area to 20 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
The Japanese government sees tourism as crucial to its economic recovery.
"For them, it's really, really important that Japan is viewed as a place that people want to visit," says Benjamin Erickson, a volunteer with SeattleJapanRelief.org, who is helping to plan a Day of Remembrance Sunday at the Seattle Center. "They can't have people being afraid of Japan fifteen, twenty years from now."
The documentary "Gambappe Hula Girls" will be screened Sunday, March 11, 2012 as part of a Day of Remembrance at the Seattle Center (10 a.m.) followed by the ringing of the Kobe bell at 2 p.m. For more info, click here.