TRAVEL ALERT: Airlines Scramble To Get Travelers Out Of Tokyo
MSNBC.COM - Airlines on Wednesday hustled to get passengers stuck at Tokyo's airports out of quake-stricken Japan, while aid organizations said the city is safe for international travelers.
Last week's earthquake and tsunami has transformed parts of Tokyo into a ghost town as people either stay indoors or leave.
France and Austria urged their citizens in Tokyo to leave the country or head to southern Japan. The French embassy in Tokyo said it had asked Air France to mobilize planes for the evacuation of French nationals from Japan, and two were already on their way.
An aviation industry official in Asia said there had been a sharp drop in demand to fly to Japan coupled with a rush to leave.
Briton Andy Beese, a Tokyo-based photographer, flew back to Tokyo late Tuesday from London on an Asiana flight.
"I've never been on such an empty flight," he said shortly after boarding. "It was a (300-seat Boeing) 777 with barely 20 people on board."
While Japan's markets and banks remained open, many financial professionals, particularly those from outside Japan, were doing everything they could to get out of the country.
Foreign bankers choosing to remain in Tokyo and Japanese bankers said that it was anything but business as usual due to patchy communications, rolling blackouts, thinly staffed desks and so many people looking to leave.
"It's been almost impossible to get hold of investors since the quake hit," said one syndicate banker at a U.S. house from the safety of Hong Kong.
While the banks were not officially relocating people, they were accommodating employees and their families who wanted to leave.
"At the end of the day, it's the employee's choice whether they flee or stay back," a banker at a European investment bank said. Asked who was taking up the option to leave, he said: "Who isn't? Everyone is trying to get out. Wouldn't you?"
Expatriate staff at most foreign banks in Tokyo make up a small portion of the total, by some estimates less than 10 percent. But many are often in senior positions so their departure can have a significant impact.
And while Japan's investment banking market is famously tough, it's an essential place for large banks to be and can produce hefty fees.
"The foreign banker presence on the ground in Tokyo now is very thin, and depending on how long it takes them to return, there could be lasting implications of that," said one banker. "Every time there's a washout of foreigners in Japan, they never quite return in the same numbers."
Several bankers compared the situation to the outbreak of SARS in 2003. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) emerged in southern China in 2002, swept through Guangdong province and Hong Kong before spreading globally in 2003. It infected some 8,000 people and killed around 800, which prompted hordes of foreign professionals to leave Hong Kong.
Private jets become popular
The demand for private jets was growing, according to CNBC. Private jet operators said they're seeing a surge in demand for flights to help evacuate foreign bankers and company CEOs.
One jet operator told CNBC the cost of flying 14 people to Hong Kong from Tokyo, a 5-hour flight, was more than $160,000.
"I got a request yesterday to fly 14 people from Tokyo to Hong Kong," Jackie Wu, COO of Hong Kong Jet, told CNBC. "They did not care about price."
While most airlines are right now coping with flight demands and safety advice on a daily basis, some experts are already trying to assess the long-term impact on Japan's travel and tourism industry.
"The airlines will be adjusting day by day to cope with the after-effects of the quake, but longer term, they will be evaluating the market to see what their operations should be before changing their schedules," said Alistair Rivers, Director of Industry Affairs at Innovata, a U.S. company specializing in the management and distribution of flight databases.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said the Japanese disaster would reduce premium air travel in March as Japan makes up 6-7 percent of the global market.
The World Travel & Tourism Council estimates travel and tourism made up 6.8 percent of Japan's 2011 GDP before the quake, although growth forecasts for 2011 were now in doubt.
Travel company Inside Japan Tours, which sent around 4,000 people to the country last year, said some people had canceled trips after official British advice not to travel there.
A spokesman for the company, which has been providing a stream of updates on its Facebook page, said however, that the majority of people were so far looking to take up its offer of rebooking trips past May 15.
"This is promising and shows they're not giving up on us or Japan," he added.
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