Image: Akihabara district of Tokyo
Michael Caronna  /  Reuters
People cross the street in the Akihabara district of Tokyo on March 18. Amidst fears of a nuclear catastrophe in northeaster Japan, a smaller than usual number of foreign tourists were seen in the popular electronics shopping district.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/30/2011 9:34:17 PM ET 2011-03-31T01:34:17

Daniel Koffler, 28, and his fiancée are getting married Saturday. The couple had planned a 17-day "amazing honeymoon" that was to begin in Tokyo next week, include four other Asian cities, and end in the Maldives.

On the advice of his travel agent, however, Koffler canceled the Tokyo portion.

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"If it had been just the earthquake, frankly, I would have gone," said Koffler, the vice president of MetSchools, an education company in New York. "But the radiation has given me pause. I can't risk it. I want to have children one day."

The devastating earthquake and tsunami, a growing death toll and search for missing persons, and an evolving nuclear radiation threat are causing many travelers to cancel trips to Japan.

Impact on tourism
The drop-off in visitors may deliver a heavy blow to the country's tourism industry. Each year, about 1.5 million American citizens visit Japan and spend about $5 billion, according to the Department of Commerce. Compounding problems is the escalating exchange rate, which is making trips more expensive to U.S. travelers.

“The effect on the tour business is absolutely tremendous. You cannot even begin to imagine,” said Johnson Yip, president of Pacific Protour, a tour operator, who canceled all current trips and tours in the near future to Japan.

And perceptions will potentially discourage future visitors.

“Those are incalculable. You don't even know what you've lost,” Yip said. "I really don't have a clear idea of what the near future will bring. It is a fluid situation.”

Fears that the Japanese government is withholding facts and downplaying dangers — and that media reports are exaggerating the nuclear threat and worries about power, food supplies and transportation — are leaving many Americans concerned that they do not have credible information.

Business as usual?
“Some of the questions I have been getting from clients would suggest that the media has been portraying that the entire country was ready to sink into the ocean,” said Mike Roberts, owner of Samurai Tours, a provider of small-group, escorted tours and self-guided independent packages.

“Other than northern Japan, and a few problems in Tokyo, the rest of Japan is business as usual,” said Roberts. “But that message is not getting out to the public. The Japanese people I know are very upset about that.”

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Story: Corporate travel to Japan dries up after quake

Roberts was leading a tour group in Beppu on the island of Kyushu when problems began. “Since the tour was not going anywhere near northern Japan, I decided it was safe to continue. I discussed it with the clients. They were all given the choice to continue, or we would help them return home. They all chose to continue.” The tour finished on Wednesday.

“Our tour beginning this weekend had to be canceled,” he said. “However, at this time, we are still planning to operate all of our remaining tours.”

The NTA, a trade group that represents about 3,000 tour operators and other travel organizations, and to which Roberts belongs, updates members regularly with travel advisory information about airports, public transportation, events and popular destinations, from the Japan National Tourism Organization’s website.

'Between a rock and a hard place'
“Levels of anxiety are very high, but I don't think it is as dire as what people have read,” said Ken Fish, president and owner of Absolute Travel, a luxury travel company in New York. He said some clients have canceled or postponed trips, others “are still asking us to make dinner reservations for a month from now. That makes me smile, because they are so committed.”

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His family was to travel to Japan on Saturday, but relatives of his wife, who is Japanese, who live in Japan, advised them against it. Not for reasons of personal safety, he added, but because the country is grappling to recover. Extra people, he said, “would be an added burden."

He also said insurance loopholes can sometimes prevent people from canceling.

Tobie Abzug of Coram, N.Y., wanted to cancel a Princess cruise that ends in Japan at the end of the month, but is continuing because her insurance will not reimburse costs. “We feel it is a trip of a lifetime” said Abzug, who flew with her husband Eddie from Chicago to Shanghai on Friday. “We’re between a rock and a hard place. We have no recourse but to go.” However, she said, “we feel Princess wouldn’t jeopardize anybody’s health” and will divert the ship if necessary.

"She is extremely concerned, as is her family," particularly after Thursday's U.S. State Department evacuations, said Barbara Nichuals, Abzug's travel agent and president of Bayside Travel and Gramatan Travel, in Westchester County, N.Y.

Princess has since canceled port calls to Japan through May, with the exception of the Ocean Princess, which will visit Okinawa (the most southern prefecture) on April 15. Ships will now spend extra time at sea or make stops in other Asian countries.

Story: Cruise lines cancel stops in Japan

Spring break and study abroad
Fifteen-year-old Cameron McCulloch, a high school sophomore from Oakville, Ontario, was planning to fly with friends on March 13 for spring break to visit Tokyo, Mount Fuji and the countryside. “We were all looking forward to it for many weeks, counting down each individual day,” he said. But when the nuclear problems began, “that was a deal breaker. I don’t want to be anywhere near that.” He hopes to reschedule the trip for summer or next spring.

“I just love the culture,” said Jay Cushing, 19, of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, a self-described “geeky kid” who is a fan of everything Japanese, from the philosophy and martial arts to anime and video games. He is scheduled to depart on April 6 for a three-month home-stay program in Tokyo to learn Japanese on a Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) program, arranged through the Center for Interim Programs.

“He had his heart set on Tokyo” said Debbie Cushing, Jay's mother. “CIEE hasn't made a final decision yet,” she said, “but with every passing day, the news gets grimmer and grimmer and [the trip] is less likely.”

Although disappointed, Jay said, “I’m more worried about the country than about my prospects. It’s not about me.”

American solidarity
The ideal time to visit Japan is March through May, as summer can be hot, said Fish, owner of Absolute Travel. Japan has an impressive cherry blossom festival season, usually starting in late March or early April, that can be a pretty big draw, he said. "They gave us the trees in Washington, and it is something they are known for."

Story: 10 favorite cherry blossom festivals

Organizers of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., which begins March 26, said they did not know if more people would attend this year. The festival is a 16-day celebration commemorating spring and the cherry blossom tress that were a gift from Japan almost a century ago, in 1912.

“Our relationship with Japan is really at the heart of the festival,” that each year draws about a million visitors, said Danielle Piacente, the festival's communications manager.

On March 24, there will be a walk and fundraising event, and beginning Friday, the festival will have a donation page in partnership with the American Red Cross for the relief effort. “I think people are looking at the festival as a way to have solidarity during such a terrible time of tragedy,” Piacente said.

Story: 6 tips for enjoying D.C.'s cherry blossom festival

“If you are sympathetic to the events” in Japan, said Jim Strong, president of Strong Travel Services, a Dallas-based luxury travel agency, “the best thing you can do is to go as a tourist. Staying away is harmful to everyone from tour operators to restaurant owners and employees."

“Japan is a very sophisticated country, a very conservative country and a very responsible country on the whole” said Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations. He said he is confident that the government will be forthcoming about the evolving situation, and hopes when the time is right, tourists will return. “You can have an earthquake anywhere. Anything can happen anywhere. You've got to live your life," he said. “Japan is a beautiful and fascinating culture. I hope people won't take it off their radar.”

Koffler, Ezon’s client, who will be married today, said he’s confident he will visit Japan in the future.

“We created nuclear power. We can harness it,” he said.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Video: Radiation found on crops in Japan

  1. Transcript of: Radiation found on crops in Japan

    LESTER HOLT, co-host: We want to turn to Japan now, where a nation devastated by an earthquake and tsunami is now continuing to try and prevent a nuclear crisis from becoming much worse. Right now the desperate efforts to -- continue to stop radiation leaking from the crippled power plant where several reactors have been badly damaged. NBC 's chief science correspondent, Robert Bazell , is in Tokyo for us this morning. Bob, good morning.

    ROBERT BAZELL reporting: Hello, Lester . The Japanese government just announced that it had found levels of radiation in spinach and milk from farms in the north of Japan . Now, the government says these amounts are very small, and to put it in perspective, they said if you drank one glass of milk every day for a year, you would get the same amount of radiation that you get when you have a CT scan or -- and if you ate one portion of spinach, you'd get one-fifth as much. But this shows why the fight to keep even more radiation from leaking is going on. As part of the desperate struggle to cool down the dangerous nuclear fuel , firefighters from the Tokyo Fire Department hosed down reactor number 3. Smoke rising from the plant shows the effort is at least partially successful. In the next major effort, workers are hooking electricity to try to get the pumps running. But what if the pumps are damaged beyond repair?

    Ms. MARGARET HARDING (Nuclear Engineer): There's so many other factors that I'm not going to even start to guess on how complicated that gets.

    BAZELL: Beyond the reactor core , pumps are needed to refill tanks like these containing the spent fuel rods. In fact, there's 1760 tons of fuel in the tanks, four times more than in the reactor. This photograph shows the damage near the fuel tanks at reactor 4. Officials fear many tanks may have lost all or part of their water in the earthquake, leaving the fuel susceptible to damage and even explosion. Shooting or pumping water is one solution, but there is great concern that some of the pools are too damaged to hold water. US engineers have developed a plan to fill the tanks with sand and other materials. The Japanese say this is not feasible, but outside experts disagree.

    Ms. HARDING: The idea with putting sand on the spent fuel pool is that it provides protection so that they can come back in and put water or something else on. It's going to shield that, stop the radiation from leaking out, slow down all of what's going on, and give them time to make the next step happen.

    BAZELL: Measurements taken by US military planes show dangerous levels of radiation remain confined to the area near the plant. According to international agencies, the rates beyond the plant do not yet exceed dangerous levels. But even though they're not beyond what people consider safety, the finding of the milk -- radiation in milk and spinach shows why this is such a big deal. Even if the plant were to stop emitting radiation tomorrow, which it won't, Lester , every time a parent hears about radiation in any level in milk or something, they're going to get really concerned and even -- so this is going to go on. We're going to hear incidents of this kind of contamination for weeks, maybe months, maybe even years from now. Lester :

    HOLT: Incredibly disturbing development. Robert Bazell in Tokyo . Thank you.

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Kawauchimura Village in the Radius of 20-30 km from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
    Koichi Kamoshida / EPA
    Above: Slideshow (9) Devastation in Japan after quake
  2. Shlomo Cohen / Israel, Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (11) Radiation Worries

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