Japan is open to travel. So why aren’t tourists coming back?

This is especially notable in Japan, which reopened with much fanfare in June 2022, just in time for the peak tourist season. According to the Japan Immigration Bureau, Japan received about 1,500 leisure tourists between June 10 and July 10. That’s down 95 percent from the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.

So what is the reason for this gap? Why are travelers so slow to return to this historically popular destination?

Numbers are not safe

Although Japan is once again accessible, the country is currently only allowing leisure tourists in organized groups rather than individuals. For many in the West, who prefer spontaneity and don’t want to follow a rigid itinerary, this issue is a deal breaker.

“We don’t need to be babysitters,” said Melissa Musiker, a New York-based public relations professional who used to travel to Japan.

Musk and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times.” The couple had planned to visit again in 2022 when they heard the border was reopening, but got frustrated with the restrictions and gave up.

Instead, they chose a new destination, a holiday in South Korea.

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

A preference for city tours over beach vacations has tipped the scales in Seoul’s favor, as has her pandemic-induced addiction to Korean dramas.

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

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

semi open not open

Japan’s policy of incomplete opening does not only apply to visas. The country still has mask-wearing rules in many areas, group travel can be expensive, and Japan’s requirement to quarantine on arrival makes it harder to sell.

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

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 perhaps just hopped in for a spontaneous long weekend. However, the company has had to suspend operations since 2020.

“We didn’t know it would take this long,” she said of what should have been a short pause. “It was definitely tough.”

Tam said the few members who started to reconnect with Arry about bookings were those who were able to obtain business travel visas to Japan. Currently, this is the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as solo tourists, and some are taking advantage of the low-traffic opportunities to get places at restaurants they couldn’t make reservations before.

However, there is some 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 a strong local customer base,” says Tam. On the plus side, that means these popular places will remain open as long as foreign tourists can come.

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

Before the pandemic, Kyoto's narrow streets were crowded with tourists.

Before the pandemic, Kyoto’s narrow streets were crowded with tourists.

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

China effect

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

But now, China is largely cut off from the rest of the world. It still has strict quarantine protocols in place for citizens and foreigners, bringing tourism to a standstill.

Japan isn’t the only country that has been hit hard by a lack of Chinese tourists. Popular destinations for Chinese tourists, such as Australia, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea, all lost revenue as more than a billion potential tourists stayed at home.
Tokyo Skytree is the tallest building in Japan.

Tokyo Skytree is the tallest building in Japan.

Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Reuters

Ami Hiroyuki, head of public relations for the Tokyo Skytree, said it wasn’t until June 27 that the first international tour group arrived at the observation deck. The group consisted of guests from Hong Kong.

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

“Before Covid,” Ami said, “the most[foreign tourists]were from China, but I haven’t seen them lately. He confirmed that most of the visitors to Skytree over the past six weeks have been local Japanese for the summer holidays.

“Just because tourist acceptance has resumed doesn’t mean we’ve got a lot of customers from overseas,” he added.

waiting on the wings

Chances are, when Japan decides to fully reopen to individual leisure tourists, they will want to come. The tagline “Vengeance Travel” was created to describe those saving money during Covid and now wanting to make a splash on a big wishlist trip, and Japan remains a popular wishlist destination.

“There’s a lot of interest in going back to Japan,” said Arry co-founder Tam. “I think it’s going to get better.”

CNN’s Kathleen Benoza in Tokyo provided reporting.

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