Sea row putting Chinese tourists off trips to Japan

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More and more Chinese are canceling or postponing going on holiday to Japan as the island nation continues its illegal detention of a Chinese trawler captain.

The Pro-Health (China) Co. Ltd., a Beijing-based company manufacturing health food and skincare products, has announced it has canceled a group tour to Japan next month for 10,000 of its employees.

"The decision won the support of more than 90 percent of the company's employees," Wu Xuecheng, vice general manager of Pro-Health, told Xinhua Tuesday.

"Japan's illegal detention of the Chinese boat captain has severely hurt Chinese people's feelings. Our dignity has been taken away. I don't know what our employees would feel if they toured in Japan," he said.

The company would repay the travel agency any losses it incurred from the cancellation, including visa fees, round-trip air tickets and hotel deposits, Wu said. The losses were estimated at more than 20 million yuan (3 million U.S. dollars).

"We have planned the group tour for more than a year. But now, we hope to take practical action to safeguard the nation's dignity," he added.

"I resolutely support the company's decision. The national interest should be placed above everything. We shall never step back on issues of sovereignty," said Ma Haixing, a company employee.

"The company made the right decision. We regret the loss of our company, but we are proud of the move," said Sun Yuqin, another employee.

On Sept. 7, two Japan Coast Guard patrol ships and a Chinese trawler collided in waters off China's Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The Japan Coast Guard illegally seized the Chinese trawler and detained the fishermen and the captain on Sept. 8.

The 14 Chinese crew were released last week, but the captain's continued detention sparked protests across the country Saturday, which also happened to mark the 79th anniversary of Japan's WWII invasion of China.

China has summoned the Japanese ambassador five times and postponed scheduled talks on joint energy exploration in the East China Sea.

A Japanese court announced Sunday the trawler captain's detention - which had been due to expire Sunday - would be extended by another 10 days, fueling the Chinese public's indignation.

China's Foreign Ministry announced late Sunday that Japan's refusal to release the trawler captain had "severely damaged" relations between the two countries. A ministry statement said China had canceled ministerial and provincial-level contacts with Japan, suspended talks on aviation issues, and postponed a meeting on coal.

"We demand the Japanese side immediately release the Chinese captain unconditionally," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement.

"China will take strong counter measures if the Japanese side continues to act willfully and double its mistakes. Japan shall suffer all the consequences," Ma said.

In addition, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya made "solemn representations" to the Japanese ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa, Sunday evening, expressing China's strong indignation.

Chinese travel agencies have felt the chill of the tension in bilateral relations.

"The number of individual travelers to Japan has dropped drastically, but we have yet to calculate the figure," said Zhang Wei, director of the Outbound Travel Department at the China International Travel Service.

"Most tour groups are still waiting. They haven't canceled their trips, except for a large tour group from the Pro-Health company," she said.

"We're closely watching the development of the issue and the measures the Chinese government takes," she added. Although no cancellation of group tours to Japan has been reported at the China Youth Travel Service (CYTS), the company was not optimistic about the near future.

"It's hard to predict tourism figures to Japan after the week-long National Day holiday (that runs from Oct. 1 till 7)," said Song Xiaohong, a spokeswoman for CYTS Outbound Travel Company.

Chinese mainlanders make up a large number of the tourists traveling to Japan, following those from the Republic of Korea and China's Taiwan.

On July 1 this year, the Japanese government relaxed visa rules for Chinese nationals to encourage more of them to visit and help boost the nation's flagging retail sector.

In the first five months, the number of Chinese mainland visitors to Japan rose 36 percent year-on-year to about 600,000, according the Japan National Tourism Organization. Chinese tourists spend 230,000 yen (2,613 U.S. dollars) on average per trip, which is a massive injection of capital into the retail sector, local economists have noted.

"But after the illegal detention of Chinese boat captain by Japanese authorities, many Chinese people have canceled their trips to Japan and may turn to other countries," said Zhang Jianzhong, a spokesman for China's National Tourism Administration.

"Signs have shown that Japan's handling of the trawler incident has triggered negative emotions among the Chinese public and damaged the interests of both sides," said Prof. Jin Canrong, deputy dean of the School of International Studies at the Beijing-based Renmin University of China.

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