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Japan’s slow covid reopening restricts ordinary foreign tourists but not celebrities

Japan’s slow covid reopening restricts ordinary foreign tourists but not celebrities


TOKYO — Rapper Kanye West, actor Tom Cruise and the Hallyu stars of Super Junior don’t seem to have much in common. But they do in Japan: They are among the many foreign entertainers who have recently entered the country amid strict border closures.

Their high-profile presence in town has brought into focus the disparities in Japan’s slow reopening as it determines which foreigners are deemed safe and which are still seen as COVID-19 culprits.

So far, certain business travelers, international students and foreign workers are accepted, but many family members of foreign residents are not. Group tourism resumes this month, but not individual tourism.

Japan’s micro-tourism test will allow 50 foreign tourists

In May, traveling artists from the U.S. and South Korea met with hundreds of fans to promote their work in a seamless manner. That same month, a trial run began with about 50 tourists, whose every move was monitored.

But Japan canceled one of the trials this week after a traveler from Thailand tested positive for the coronavirus and exposed three others. The trial run is aimed at getting Japan ready to accept group tours from 98 countries starting June 10. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the positive tests from the Thai tour group were not expected to change those reopening plans.

Japan’s continued restrictions on foreigners are out of step not only with major G7 economies, but also with its Asia-Pacific neighbors fully resuming free travel in the face of declining COVID-19 cases.

The pandemic shutdown remains popular at home, but opponents have likened it to Japan’s isolationist policies from the early 1600s to the 1850s. Business and travel executives have stepped up public criticism in recent weeks, saying Japan’s reopening is too cautious and bad for the country’s economy and global image.

Om Prakash, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, said the country’s previous blanket ban “had real economic and human costs”.

“It hinders efforts to revitalize the economy, attract international students and promote Japan as an investment and tourism destination,” he said. “To jump-start the economy and restore Japan’s reputation as a welcoming and open place, the government should act quickly to ease remaining entry restrictions to allow more tourists to come in and enjoy this amazing country freely.”

Coronavirus cases in Japan have fallen steadily since the omicron variant peaked earlier this year. Tokyo, a city of 14 million people, saw 2,362 new cases on Tuesday. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Tuesday that the government plans to roll out measures to admit more foreigners as infections decline.

International flights will resume at some airports, Kishida said, but he did not specify when the measures would take effect. “The recovery of inbound tourism is significant because the benefits of a weaker yen can be felt,” he told reporters.

On Wednesday, Japan said it would accept more short-term visas for relatives and spouses of foreign residents in Japan, but details were unclear.

But many government officials remain concerned that fully reopening the country could lead to new outbreaks of infections, despite some questions about the effectiveness of border controls in preventing the spread of the virus. Reuters quoted anonymous industry sources this week as saying local officials were concerned that foreign tourists who “behaved inappropriately” might not abide by Japanese guidelines on wearing masks and washing their hands.

There are signs that pent-up demand from tourism will bring in much-needed revenue amid a weakening yen and rising inflation. Last week, Japan topped the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Development Index for the first time, which measures the quality of a country’s tourism infrastructure.

However, these world-class amenities remain largely unused, with tourism-related spending by foreigners plummeting from about $38 billion in 2019 to nearly $1 billion in 2021, according to Nikkei Asia.

“Honestly, it’s very frustrating,” Keiko Tashiro, vice president at Daiwa Securities, Japan’s second-largest brokerage, said on a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum last week. “When I travel abroad, I see all the economic activity in Europe and the US, but Japan remains very closed.”

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Meanwhile, the uproar over foreign entertainers coming to Japan for red-carpet events and fan meetings has drawn scorn online from ordinary travelers and family members unable to enter the country.

In April, K-pop group Twice sold out 150,000 seats at a concert in Japan, while another group called “Seventeen” sold out all 60,000 seats at a fan meeting in Japan, while actor Aye Eddie Redmayne and Ansel Elgort attended the premiere event in the country. This summer, Japan will host a sprawling, star-studded music festival featuring artists such as Carly Rae Jepsen and Megan Thee Stallion.

Actor Tom Cruise celebrated finally being able to enter Japan at a promotional event for his new film Top Gun: Maverick in Tokyo recently.

“It’s great to be back and share this movie with you all,” Cruise said. “We’re so excited. Thrilled…to be here and to be back here after all these years.”

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