Japan’s easing of its two-year ban on foreign tourists seeks to balance the huge economic importance of tourism with concerns that travelers will cause a cowardly outbreak, insiders say.
The decision means Japan will allow a limited number of foreign tourists on package tours from June 10. Over the past week a few “test tours”, mainly of foreign travel agents, have begun to arrive.
Travel and tourism executives need months of pressure to relax some of the world’s toughest epidemic border arrangements, three insiders told Reuters, describing both the government’s fear of public reaction to the outbreak and the industry’s concern about economic extinction.
“There were concerns that foreign tourists would include many people with bad behavior – those who do not wear masks or use hand sanitizers and that the infection could spread again,” said a travel agency executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. On condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The industry puts pressure on Prime Minister Fumio Kishidar’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior partners, as well as government ministries, he said, but initially they seemed unresponsive.
Official resistance softened after Japan’s “Golden Week” holiday in May, when people traveled internally but infections did not increase much, the executive said.
“If the government does not open the country, more companies will go bankrupt, and this is not politically good,” he said.
Kishidar LDP faces an election in July. Although the closed-border policy was initially very popular, as the epidemic eased and the cost of closure became more pronounced, the public became warmer for re-opening. A recent Nikkei survey shows that 67% of respondents think it is “reasonable” to allow foreign tourists.
The State Department felt pressure from abroad on these measures and was one of a handful of ministries trying to persuade the Kishidar government, another insider said.
In the end, foreign pressure helped ensure change, an industry executive said.
Local governments are concerned that foreign tourists will bring the coronavirus, industry executives say, making it difficult for the country to fully open up.
Japan, where guidelines such as wearing masks and hand sanitizing are strictly followed, has avoided the kind of widespread infection that has spread to other countries.
Hotel operator Resol Holdings Co Ltd has opened four new venues in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, in anticipation of a massive influx of foreign tourists. Hideki Kageyama, operations manager, said it was a complete bust.
“You can’t pay bills, rent, labor without domestic tourism,” he said, adding that border facilitation would not be enough to revive the industry quickly.
According to researcher Teikoku Databank Limited, the number of closed hotels nationwide reached a five-year high last year and the hotel loan level has more than doubled since 2019.
Government subsidies have largely helped stop bankruptcy. Kageyama said Wrestle could go down without side businesses like golf courses and solar plants.
Tourism before the epidemic was a rare bright spot for Japan. A record 32 million foreign tourists in 2019, spending about $ 38 billion. The government still aims to bring in 60 million tourists a year by 2030.
Rickshaw pullers from Tokyo’s Asakusa Temple District have benefited from the rides of domestic tourists instead of the earlier Chinese crowds.
“I want foreigners to come back,” said Ui Oikawa, a Rise Up Tokyo rickshaw puller. “That way it was more lively, people from all over the country would come to Asakusa to pray or drink.”
There is also a lost opportunity: the yen is at its weakest level in 20 years, making Japan a cheap destination for travelers.
For now, tourists can only come as part of the quota of 20,000 arrivals per day, including guided, package tours and residents.
Singapore and Thailand began welcoming tourists in the second half of 2021 and simplified entry rules in April. Japan does not have a timeline for resuming full-scale, independent tourism, and the ease with which Kovid could get worse could be reversed, the government says.
The small test tours that started last week are mainly made up of foreign travel agents. They are under a tough journey that has been ridiculed online for being reminiscent of a visit to North Korea.
Officials say the test trips will help the government create travel guidelines from June 10.
But Clement Queeh, an Australian travel agent who arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport last week, said he and his colleagues were still not sure how authorities would define “group” travel.
“We’re not sure what that means,” he said.
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and was published from a syndicated feed.)