The state of travel to Japan
Lights are turned off to save energy before rolling blackouts in Tokyo. (Reuters)
You might think I’m crazy, but if I had a business trip to Japan on my calendar, I would go.
In light of the recent disaster, I would certainly follow the advice of most government foreign offices and stay away until after 1 April (next Friday). But after that, I'd go, especially if the situation at Fukushima continues to inch toward improvement as it has this week.
Why? Because, thinking like other business travellers, I'd be concerned that if I didn't go, my competitors would. I would go because doing so would show loyalty and concern to my potential Japanese clients, which could also help cement a long-term relationship.
Despite the disaster, Japan is still a huge and lucrative market. Its stock market is still open. Most automobile production lines are humming along again. The country is shocked, but it has not shut down. This is especially true in cities like Osaka, Kyoto and Fukuoka, south and west of Tokyo, where life and commerce continues on much as it did before the 11 March earthquake and tsunami. Cancelling a trip to these areas now would be akin to cancelling a trip to Atlanta or Miami after 9/11 occurred in New York City and Washington DC, hundreds of miles away.
Understandably, not all travellers are that confident. Some flights are still disrupted and scheduling is in transition. Tokyo's hotels are open, but facing operational challenges. A business trip to Japan in the coming weeks and months will be anything but normal. But it won't be impossible.
If you are still trying to decide whether to go, I've done my best to answer some of the murkier questions about the state of travel to Japan.
Q: What about the threat of exposure to radiation?
On Tuesday, the International Civil Aviation Organization released a statement that should help reassure travellers. I would be concerned if my travels took me anywhere north of Tokyo, but for now, the threat is concentrated in the area around Fukushima.
"International flight and maritime operations can continue normally into and out of Japan's major airports and sea ports, excluding those damaged by the tsunami, according to the latest information available from the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Meteorological Organization, the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization. While there is currently no medical basis for imposing restrictions, the United Nations organizations are monitoring the situation closely and will advise of any changes."
Q: How are airlines handling the situation?
Specific rules and dates vary, but most airlines are offering full refunds to travellers holding tickets for travel to Japan before 1 April. They are also waiving fees for one-time changes to tickets and in some cases, allowing customers to change destinations.
Most global airlines serving Japan have altered equipment and schedules to deal with the very fluid situation. Some examples: all Delta Air Lines' flights to/from its Tokyo Narita hub remain in place, but it has temporarily suspended all its flights to nearby Tokyo Haneda Airport. Singapore Airlines has cut one daily Singapore-Haneda roundtrip and suspended plans to launch new Airbus A380 flights between Los Angeles and Tokyo; service will continue with a smaller Boeing 747. Lufthansa has diverted all Tokyo-bound flights to Nagoya or Osaka through 28 March. My sources at Japan's ANA report that the carrier is now diverting fewer domestic flights to/from relief efforts in Fukushima as the situation eases.
Also, some airlines have temporarily closed first and business class lounges at Tokyo Narita and Haneda airports.
Q: What's going on at hotels in Japan?
With the recent exodus of international visitors, hotels in Tokyo and elsewhere are hosting mostly Japanese guests. "There is a general sense of people outside the affected areas trying to get back to normal," said Clarence Tan, Chief Executive Officer of the InterContinental Hotels Group in Japan. Due to scheduled rolling black outs, some high-rise hotels without back-up generators (and therefore spotty elevator service) are having difficulty maintaining operations.
Such is the case with the Shangri-La, one of Tokyo's newest, most elegant hotels, which occupies the top 11 floors of a downtown skyscraper. The hotel's website states that it is no longer accepting new reservations, and that, "Bookings will resume as soon as the energy supply and normal hotel operation can be restored."
However, other hotels I've spoken with state that operations are somewhat normal. The front desk manager at the Best Western Astina hotel in Tokyo's Shinjuku said that the hotel is in an area not subject to blackouts and is about half full. He expects normalcy to return "sometime this summer". At the Hilton Osaka, the front desk manager I spoke with said that the hotel is full and operations are normal.
Nearly all major international hotel chains have links from their home pages with frequently updated statements about hotel operational status.
Q: How are corporations advising employees with pressing business needs to fly to Japan?
Most corporations are following the direction of officials in Japan or the foreign offices of the country where they are based. Here are links to some: Australia; Canada; UK; US.
This week, corporate travel managers are more focused on locating and repatriating business travellers who were in Japan on assignments when the earthquake occurred. Some are working on relocating employees to cities in southern Japan or neighboring countries.
However, as I mentioned above, I don't think it will be too long before travel managers are managing the rapid return of business travellers eager to get back to their jobs and their deals once the "all clear" flag is waved.
Q: Can travel insurance provide some peace of mind for uncertain travellers?
I called on the experts at Insuremytrip.com to help with this one. They suggest that business travellers eager to return to Japan, but skittish about losing money on non-refundable fares or other pre-paid travel expenses, should consider what's known as "Cancel for Any Reason" insurance.
Q: If I'm scheduled to attend a meeting in Japan in the coming weeks or months, should I cancel?
I would wait until 1 April to make a decision about trips later this spring or summer. Despite the horrific images and sorrow, life will go on in Japan. The cherry trees are going to bloom later this month. The stock market will rise and fall. The bright neon lights along Tokyo's boulevards will shine again. This is a shock, but it will not last forever.
Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC.com/travel