PM Kishida remains cautious on reviving overseas tourism as election nears
TOKYO — As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan is slowly taking steps toward a wider reopening of its borders. Some restrictions will be lifted from Wednesday, and from June 10 tourists will be allowed to enter but only under certain conditions.
Here are five things to know about Japan’s border-easing measures:
What happens on Wednesday?
Japan will increase the daily cap on the number of visitor arrivals to 20,000 from the current 10,000.
For people traveling from 98 countries and regions classified as “blue” — about 80% of inbound travelers to Japan — on-arrival COVID testing and quarantine will not be required, even for unvaccinated entrants. China, Taiwan and South Korea are among the places in this category.
For 99 “yellow” countries, including India and Vietnam, people will be exempt from testing and quarantine if they are triple vaccinated.
Entrants are still required to test negative in a COVID test within 72 hours before departing the country for Japan.
When can tourists enter Japan?
From June 10, but with conditions. The only tourists who will be allowed into Japan will be those in tour groups sponsored by a travel agency licensed in Japan or other receiving organizations located in the country. Individual tourists will still be banned.
Japan has been running trials of such tour visits since May, with about 50 tourists from Australia, Singapore, Thailand and the U.S. Based on the results of these trials, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is expected to issue guidelines for travel agencies to follow when organizing tours to Japan.
Japanese media have reported that mask-wearing will be among the strict anti-COVID measures that tourists will be required to adhere to.
Why is Prime Minister Kishida taking this approach?
Japan is opening up its borders at a much slower pace than Western countries as well as many other places in Asia. Singapore, for example, has allowed fully-vaccinated travelers from any country or region to enter without quarantine from April 1.
“Strengthening Japan’s border measures was necessary for us to ensure that our medical system was on a sound footing and provided time to administer vaccinations,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said when announcing the easing on May 26. “However, from now on, we will further relax our border measures.”
Analysts say Kishida is keeping strict border measures because they were popular among voters. In a recent Nikkei poll, 70% of respondents said they supported the government’s COVID response. Overall support for Kishida hit 66%, the highest level since he came into office in October last year. He is especially popular among people aged 60 or higher.
Kishida also faces an upper house election, and analysts expect further easing steps should his ruling Liberal Democratic Party come through unscathed.
What will the easing of restrictions mean for the economy?
Japan’s tourism industry has had a devastating two years since the onset of the pandemic. Travel-related spending by foreigners visiting Japan hit a record high of 4.8 trillion yen (about $38 billion) in 2019, but fell to an estimated 744.6 billion yen in 2020 and 120.8 billion yen last year. Airlines, hotels and restaurants have cut staff as demand plummeted.
But the recovery will be gradual. Even after raising the upper daily limit to 20,000, Japan is still far from returning to pre-pandemic times. In 2019, Japan welcomed 31.9 million foreign visitors — about 87,000 per day.
Another key factor is when tourists from mainland China, which accounted for about 26% of all foreign tourists visiting Japan and 34% of spending in 2020, will be able to resume overseas travel. China maintains a zero-COVID policy and has imposed strict restrictions in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen following outbreaks.
“Even if visitors are less than one-fourth of the pre-pandemic peak, it would still be able to stimulate demand during the summer if they come,” said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute. “If they don’t, further easing measures may be necessary.”
How is the travel industry responding?
The travel industry has responded positively to the news. “Great strides have been made toward resumption of international exchange,” said Hiroyuki Takahashi, chairman of Japan Association of Travel Agents.
Jeremiah Wong, senior marketing communications manager for Singaporean travel agency Chan Brothers Travel, said inquires about its Japan tours have been growing “exponentially” on the recent news about Japan’s reopening. The company has already put together more than 25 group tours for 2022 year-end travel in Japan. “We expect bookings for Japan to continue to surge, especially if travel rules and testing requirements can be further eased subsequently.”
But details on how the tours would be operated are still unclear. A trial was suspended on Monday after a visitor from Thailand tested positive for COVID. Some visitors may choose to wait until the government allows individual tourists to come in.
“We are waiting for the guidelines to come out before marketing the tours,” said a spokesperson for Japanese travel agency JTB. The person added that inquiries on longer-term plans, such as tours for next spring, have increased in anticipation of further easing measures.
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