After more than two years of effectively banning foreign tourists in a bid to keep the coronavirus at bay, Japan is finally reopening to visitors. And it’s timely given that a recent global study put Japan at the top of travellers’ must-visit list.
On Wednesday, new regulations came into force that lift the cap on arrivals from 10,000 travelers per day to 20,000 people.
Arrivals are also categorized into one of three groups; blue for people with at least two vaccinations and coming from low-risk countries and yellow for medium-risk countries with three doses of the vaccine.
Anyone arriving from Albania, Fiji, Pakistan or Sierra Leone, even if fully vaccinated, falls into the red category and will need to self-quarantine for at least three days.
According to the government, around 80% of arrivals will be in the blue category, including anyone coming from Germany to Japan.
Japan’s travel industry eagerly awaits tourists
Visitors are currently required to join licensed tour groups and are carefully monitored, but — if everything goes as planned — this requirement is expected to be relaxed on June 10 and travelers will have more freedom.
Japan’s domestic travel industry is predictably delighted with the news and hopes that further easing of restrictions will be available soon.
“The pandemic has hit us hard,” said Kei Tamura, director of Kyoto-based Cerca Travel Co.
Tamura has turned to Japanese travelers and foreign residents of Japan to keep his business afloat, though he admits it was sometimes tricky. And not all companies survived.
“We are still unable to accept reservations as the lifting of restrictions on June 10 has not been absolutely decided,” he said.
“So we are communicating with our former customers and partners and we are hopeful.”
Like the rest of the industry, he was encouraged by the fact that Japan was ranked the top destination in a travel and tourism report compiled by the World Economic Forum.
Unveiled at the WEF meeting in Davos at the end of May, Japan took first place for the first time, ahead of the United States and Spain in third place.
Moving up from fourth position in the 2019 ranking, Japan was highly rated for its wealth of cultural resources and its air and rail infrastructure.
In 2019, the last full year before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the global travel industry, 31.88 million foreigners arrived in Japan.
The nation was close to hitting the 40 million mark set for the following year, when Tokyo was to host the Olympics.
Instead, the Games have been postponed until summer 2021, strict new travel restrictions have been put in place and the Japanese have opted to stay at home instead of vacationing overseas.
According to government figures, fewer than 246,000 foreigners entered Japan in 2021, mostly Olympics-related athletes and media, businessmen, diplomats and some foreign students.
The annual figure was the lowest since the statistics were first collected in 1964.
Drop in the number of infections
Still, falling infection numbers raise hopes that the worst of the pandemic may be over.
There were 21,804 new cases of the virus reported among Japan’s 125.8 million people on May 31, down dramatically from the peak of 104,345 cases on February 3.
Naomi Mano, president and CEO of travel company Luxurique, said her regular customers were “desperate to return to Japan”.
“Since the first reports came out in April that the government was considering easing restrictions, we’ve had so many requests from people who want to come back here,” she said.
“We are also seeing a lot of interest from people who have had Japan on their wish list for a while but for some reason never got around to coming,” she said. . “Now these people are making reservations because they don’t want to wait any longer.”
Luxurique is accepting reservations from extended families or groups of friends planning Thanksgiving or Christmas in Japan, Mano said.
A typical route passes through Tokyo and the cultural sights of the former capital of Kyoto.
Many add the famous art installations on the island of Naoshima in Japan’s Inland Sea, the famous ski slopes of Niseko in Hokkaido and, of course, some of the country’s “onsen” hot springs.
“Locked up for two years”
“These people have been locked up for over two years, which they are not used to, and they have used that time to plan where they want to go and what they want to do,” Mano said.
Another incentive for making Japan their top destination is the weak yen, which is making holidays cheaper than in previous years, she added.
The industry accepts, however, that there will be a few bumps in the road before Japan’s travel industry fully returns to normal.
The government’s pilot tourism scheme was launched in late May for small groups of closely-watched travelers from a handful of countries.
It hit a bump on Monday when it was confirmed that a member of a group of four travelers from Thailand had tested positive for the virus and had been placed in an isolation unit in Oita Prefecture. , in southwestern Japan.
“It’s going to take a little while,” agreed Kei Tamura.
“I think this summer is too early to expect a lot of travelers to return, but I believe, and hope, by this time next year we will be fully booked again.”
Edited by: Wesley Rahn