Japan is open to tourism. So why haven’t tourists come back yet?


The summer of 2022 is filled with stories of travel accidents, overcrowding at major destinations and airports, and life-threatening heat waves in Europe.

Yet in Asia, where many countries are reopening in a more gradual manner — with fewer flights canceled or horror stories of lost luggage — tourists have been slow to come back.

This is particularly notable in Japan, which reopens in June 2022, which coincides with the peak travel season. The country welcomed about 1,500 leisure tourists between June 10 and July 10, according to the Japan Immigration Service. That’s a 95% drop compared to the same period in 2019 before the pandemic.

So what caused this difference? Why are travelers so slow to return to this historically popular destination?

Although Japan has resumed travel, the country currently only allows leisure visitors in organized groups rather than individuals. For many Westerners who love spontaneity and don’t want to follow a strict itinerary, this question is a damaging one.

“We don’t need someone to take care of us,” said Melissa Musiker, a public relations professional in New York who used to travel frequently to Japan.

Musiq and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times”. When they heard the border had reopened, the pair had planned to visit again in 2022, but became frustrated with the restrictions and dropped it.

Instead, they chose a new destination, a vacation to South Korea.

“We don’t want to quarantine. That’s a big factor,” Musik said. “We just love hanging around, shopping and eating expensive sushi.”

A preference for city tours over beach vacations is tipping things in Seoul’s favor, as is her pandemic-fueled Korean drama obsession.

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The Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, is usually surrounded by tourists and street vendors.

Japan’s policy of not being fully open doesn’t just apply to visas. Masks are still required in many parts of the country, group travel can be expensive, and Japan requires quarantine upon arrival, making it a harder sell.

Katie Tam is the co-founder of Arry, a membership-based subscription platform that helps Japanese travelers book some of Tokyo’s most popular restaurants, such as Obama-approved Jiro Sukiyabashi and Den, which recently topped Asia’s best restaurant list.

Before the pandemic, many of Arry’s users were Asian travelers — living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, or Singapore — who visited Japan multiple times a year, or just dropped by for a long weekend. However, since 2020, the company has had to continue to shut down.

“We didn’t know it was going to take this long,” she said of what was supposed to be a brief pause. “It’s definitely tough.”

Tam said the few members who started contacting Ali to make reservations were those who had already obtained business travel visas to Japan. Currently, it’s the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as solo tourists, and some are taking advantage of the smaller crowds to get seats at restaurants they previously couldn’t get a reservation for.

However, there is a bit of good news. Despite the challenges, many of Japan’s best restaurants are doing well during the pandemic.

“Many of the restaurants we work with have strong local customer bases,” Tan said. On the bright side, this means that these popular places will remain open as long as foreign tourists are able to arrive.

According to statistics from the Immigration Bureau, the two largest markets for Japanese tourism are currently Thailand and South Korea. But “maximum” here is relative – about 400 people from each country have visited Japan since June. Only 150 were from the United States.

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Before the outbreak, the narrow streets of Kyoto were packed with tourists.

In 2019, Japan’s largest single tourism market was neighboring China, with 9.25 million visits to Japan.

But right now, China remains largely cut off from the rest of the world. It still imposes strict quarantine protocols on citizens and foreigners, bringing tourism to a standstill.

Japan is not the only country hit hard by a lack of Chinese tourists. Popular destinations for Chinese tourists such as Australia, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea have all lost revenue as more than a billion potential tourists remain at home.

Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Reuters

Tokyo Skytree is the tallest building in Japan.

Hiroyuki Ami, head of the public relations department of Tokyo Skytree, said that the first batch of international tourist groups did not arrive at the observation deck until June 27. The group consisted of guests from Hong Kong.

The financial hub city has strict restrictions, including mandatory hotel quarantines for returning residents, but it’s still easier for tourists to travel there than from mainland China.

“Before the outbreak of the new crown epidemic, Ami said, “the largest number of (foreign tourists) were Chinese, but I haven’t seen them recently. He confirmed that the majority of Skytree visitors over the past six weeks have been local Japanese on summer vacation.

“Just because we’re back to receiving tourists doesn’t mean we’ve got a lot of customers from overseas,” he added.

If Japan does decide to fully reopen to individual leisure travelers, there’s a good chance they’ll want to come. “Revenge travel” is a buzzword used to describe people who saved money during the pandemic and now want to splurge on a big bucket-list trip, and Japan remains a popular wish-list destination.

“There’s a huge interest in going back to Japan,” says Arry co-founder Tam. “I think things are going to get better.”

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