After more than two years of effectively banning foreign tourists to stem the coronavirus, Japan has finally reopened to tourists. This is timely given that a recent global study has put Japan at the top of travelers’ must-see lists.
On Wednesday, new rules took effect, raising the maximum number of arrivals to 20,000 a day from 10,000.
Arrivals are also divided into one of three groups; blue represents those who have been vaccinated at least twice and are from low-risk countries, and yellow represents medium-risk countries who have received three doses of the vaccine.
Anyone from Albania, Fiji, Pakistan or Sierra Leone, even if fully vaccinated, falls into the red category and will be required to quarantine for at least three days.
According to the government, about 80 percent of arrivals will fall into the blue category, including anyone coming to Japan from Germany.
Japan’s tourism industry eagerly awaits tourists
Currently, tourists must join approved tour groups and are closely monitored, but — if all goes according to plan — That requirement will be relaxed on June 10, giving travelers more freedom.
Predictably, Japan’s domestic tourism industry is pleased with the news and hopes that restrictions will be further eased soon.
“The pandemic hit us hard,” said Kei Tamura, director of Kyoto-based Cerca Travel Co. “We went from being busy and fully booked months in advance to zero overseas tourists in a few weeks. ,” Tamura told DW.
Tamura has turned to Japanese travelers and foreign residents in Japan to keep his business going, though he admits it’s a touch-and-go at times. Not all companies survive.
“We are still unable to take bookings as the June 10 lifting of restrictions has not been fully determined,” he said.
“So we’re talking to our old customers and partners and we’re hopeful.”
Like others in the industry, he is encouraged by Japan’s No. 1 ranking in the travel and tourism report compiled by the World Economic Forum.
At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in late May, Japan topped the list for the first time, with the United States and Spain third.
Japan, which rose from fourth place in the 2019 rankings, is highly regarded for its rich cultural resources and air and rail infrastructure.
In 2019, the last year before the pandemic wreaked havoc on world tourism, 31.88 million foreigners arrived in Japan.
The country aims to hit the 40 million mark the following year, when Tokyo hosts the Olympics.
Instead, the Olympics were postponed until the summer of 2021, strict new travel restrictions were imposed, and the Japanese opted to stay at home rather than vacation abroad.
Fewer than 246,000 foreigners will enter Japan in 2021, mostly Olympic-related athletes and media, business people, diplomats and some foreign students, according to government data.
The annual figure is the lowest since statistics were first collected in 1964.
Still, falling infections are raising hopes that the worst of the pandemic may be over.
On May 31, 21,804 new virus cases were reported in Japan’s population of 125.8 million, down sharply from a peak of 104,345 cases on February 3.
Naomi Mano, president and CEO of boutique travel company Luxurique, said her regulars are “desperately wanting to return to Japan.”
“Since it was first reported in April that the government was considering easing restrictions, we’ve had a lot of inquiries from people who want to come here again,” she said.
“We’ve also seen some people who are very interested in Japan, they’ve had Japan on their bucket list for a while, but for whatever reason, they never got around to it,” she said. Those people are making reservations because they don’t want to wait any longer.”
Luxurique is taking bookings from extended families or groups of friends planning to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas in Japan, Mano said.
A typical itinerary includes cultural attractions in Tokyo and the former capital, Kyoto.
Many have incorporated famous art installations in Naoshima, the Inland Sea of Japan, the world-famous Niseko Ski Resort in Hokkaido, and of course the “hot springs” in some countries.
“closed for two years”
“These people have been locked up for more than two years, they’re not used to it, and they use that time to plan where they want to go and what they want to do,” Mano said.
Another incentive for Japan as a preferred destination is the weak yen, which makes holidays cheaper than in previous years, she added.
However, the industry acknowledges that there will be some bumps in the road before Japan’s tourism industry fully returns to normal.
The government’s pilot tourism programme, launched in late May, is aimed at closely watched travellers from a handful of countries in small groups.
That took a major turn on Monday when it was confirmed that a member of four travelers from Thailand had tested positive for the virus and was placed in a quarantine unit in Oita prefecture in southwestern Japan.
“It will take a while,” agrees Kei Tamura.
“I think it’s too early to expect large numbers of travellers to return this summer, but I believe and hope that by this time next year we will be fully booked again.”
Editor: Wesley Lahn