Japan’s travel campaign in disarray after minister’s remarks

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Japan’s travel subsidy campaign was thrown into further confusion on Friday when officials had to quickly clarify a tourism minister’s recommendation on the controversial scheme, along with his stance on covering cancellation fees in the face of the opposition from a senior member of the ruling coalition.

Tourism Minister Kazuyoshi Akaba urged young and old people on large group tours not to use the campaign, citing the risk they could spread the coronavirus and, in the case of the elderly, develop serious symptoms.

Travelers form a line while maintaining social distancing before boarding a shinkansen bullet train from JR station in Tokyo on June 19, 2020. The government has fully lifted inter-prefecture COVID-19 travel restrictions the same day. (Kyodo)

He said specific age groups and the size of circuits subject to the advisory were being considered. But a Japan Tourism Agency official later said that would ultimately leave that to the discretion of travel agencies as “it would be difficult to draw a line due to the diverse nature of travel”.

The agency is affiliated with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism headed by Akaba.

The government on Thursday revised the travel initiative shortly before its launch on Wednesday, excluding Tokyo from the program after the capital reported a record number of new coronavirus cases, remaining the area hardest hit by the virus.

The abrupt decision prompted cancellations from people living in Tokyo or planning to visit the capital as part of the Go To Travel campaign, which aims to encourage domestic travel to help revive the virus-hit economy.

Akaba said the government has no intention of compensating the costs incurred by these people. But Noritoshi Ishida, political leader of the Komeito party, called on the government to “consider (offset) cancellation fees” following Tokyo’s exclusion from the campaign. The party is the junior coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

As part of the 1.35 trillion yen ($12.59 billion) tourism push, the campaign will end up subsidizing up to half of travel costs, including accommodation and transport costs, the government initially offering rebates worth 35% of total costs.

The remaining 15 percent will be covered by coupons to be issued after September for food, shopping and other travel activities offered at the destinations, according to the Ministry of Tourism.

The government decided to exclude travel to and from Tokyo from the controversial initiative, fearing the planned nationwide campaign could contribute to a resurgence in virus infections.

Akaba said it was a “heartbreaking” decision to withdraw Tokyo, but the capital has become “a center of viral spread”.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also apologized for the decision, adding that Tokyo will be restored when the number of infections in the capital declines.

Despite the decision to exclude Tokyo, concerns remain that some travelers will stay in hotels outside the capital but visit tourist sites and restaurants inside, undermining virus containment measures.

Japan’s Tourism Minister Kazuyoshi Akaba speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on July 17, 2020, about the Go To Travel campaign, which aims to rejuvenate the coronavirus-stricken economy by boosting tourism . He said the day before that the government would exclude hardest-hit Tokyo from the campaign. (Kyodo)

Tourists using Tokyo Stations and the capital’s Haneda Airport, meanwhile, are likely to be eligible for the government’s subsidy campaign as long as they stay in accommodation facilities outside the capital.

The campaign will offer discounts to those who have already booked trips scheduled from Wednesday if they speak to campaign operators after their return.

Akaba also said the government will require accommodation facilities in the remaining 46 prefectures to take anti-virus measures such as checking guests’ temperatures and confirming their identities for them to be eligible for the campaign.

The grant program was originally scheduled to start in August ahead of Bon’s vacation in Japan around the middle of the month, when many people living in big cities return to their hometowns. But it was brought forward in time for a four-day long weekend from Thursday.

Local government leaders had expressed concern about the initiative, as they feared the campaign could bring the virus to their areas from the metropolis.

Tokyo, which reported a record 293 infections on Friday, raised its alert level to the highest of four amid a recent resurgence in infections.

On Thursday, three prefectures surrounding Tokyo – Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama – as well as Osaka prefecture also recorded their highest number of daily cases since the state of emergency was lifted in late May, bringing the national total to 622.

The total number of nationwide infections in Japan reached around 24,200 on Friday, excluding some 700 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship which was quarantined near Tokyo in February.


Related coverage:

Japan to launch Tokyo-free travel campaign amid virus resurgence


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