Asia welcomes travellers, but Japan says, not yet

Last week, Japan’s National Tourism Organization unveiled a glossy website aimed at international visitors looking to experience the country’s famous hospitality. An introductory video presents sweeping views of lush green islands dotting a cerulean bay, sleek hotel rooms boasting breathtaking views and a mouthwatering close-up of elegantly prepared seafood.

>> Ben Dooley and Hisako UenoThe New York Times
Published : 4 April 2022, 12:52 PM
Updated : 4 April 2022, 12:52 PM

Good luck experiencing any of it in person.

In a normal year, this would be the peak season for tourism to Japan. But as the cherry blossoms burst into bloom along Kyoto’s ancient, temple-lined alleys and boat tours ply the waters of Tokyo’s flower-lined rivers, Japanese tourists largely have the spectacular display to themselves.

The country sealed its borders to most foreign travellers early in the pandemic and has only recently begun to allow a slow drip of students and businesspeople to return — a sharp contrast to most of its Asian neighbours who, with the major exception of China, have substantially eased their travel restrictions.

Those hoping to visit Japan for fun shouldn’t hold their breath. Despite the national tourism organization’s wishful thinking, Koichi Wada, the head of Japan’s tourism agency, told parliament last month that “it’s exceedingly difficult to forecast the long-term trends for inbound tourism.”

The reasons are clear: As much of the rest of the world has decided to pretend the pandemic is over, Japanese politicians and the public have maintained a more cautious approach. While there is no definitive evidence that the border controls have kept case numbers low, they have been enormously popular with people at home. More than 65% of respondents in a recent poll by the public broadcaster NHK approved of the measures or felt they should be strengthened.

And with an important parliamentary election coming up in July, the country’s political leadership is unlikely to do anything that might endanger their party’s chances of winning a comfortable majority, i.e., risking a rise in coronavirus cases by reopening the country to tourism.

It’s not clear when restrictions might be rolled back, but it certainly won’t happen before the election, said James Brady, the head Japan analyst at Teneo, a risk advisory consulting firm.

But there may be some incremental movement once votes are in. Then Prime Minister Fumio Kishida “would have the flexibility to start rolling things back and opening up,” Brady said, adding that the other major factor will be the Japanese government’s assessment of how the pandemic is playing out in China and South Korea, Japan’s two largest sources of tourism.

Even then, policymakers — with an eye on public sentiment — are likely to remove the restrictions bit by bit. The idea that Japan has had the most stringent travel restrictions on foreigners among the Group of 7 nations has played well domestically, regardless of whether they have had any actual impact on the country’s ability to control the virus, said Hideki Yamamoto, a professor of health policy at Teikyo University.

The fact is Japan has had much more success fighting the pandemic than virtually all other wealthy nations, managing to keep infection numbers and overall death rates comparatively low without resorting to the hard lockdowns seen in some other countries. Even at the height of the pandemic this past February, daily case counts only once exceeded 100,000.

Even as the United States and much of Europe battled the delta and omicron waves with more restrictions, life in Japan — with the exception of near-ubiquitous masking — was proceeding more or less as normal, with people dining out, shopping, attending live music and sporting events and travelling to many of the country’s popular destination spots, including those featured in the Tourism Organization’s new website.

It’s unclear what accounts for Japan’s success in fighting the virus. Most experts credit the public’s embrace of public health recommendations along with high vaccination rates — nearly 80% of the population has received at least two shots and more than 40% have three. But other, sometimes eccentric, theories have also been tossed around, ranging from Japan’s preference for bowing over handshakes to hardier genetics.

Whatever the real reason, the public perception is that the restrictions on foreigners have been highly effective. (Most people ignore the inconvenient fact that Japanese nationals have been able to leave and enter the country as they please.)

Of course, not everyone supports keeping the country closed to tourists. The restrictions have crushed some local economies that have come to rely on guests from China, South Korea and more distant locales. Ski resorts in the Japanese Alps, spa towns in Kyushu and tropical islands far off the beaten path have all found themselves in dire financial straits.

Shutting down the country’s tourism industry likely cost Japan at least $90 billion in 2020 alone, according to one study by a professor at Kansai University.

But even in a city like Kyoto, which is highly dependent on tourists dollars, some locals have been happy to have a breather from the crush of bus tours that clogged the streets and most famous destinations in the years before the pandemic.

In a recent essay, novelist and Kyoto native Keiichiro Kashiwagi wrote that his fellow Kyotoites had long bemoaned the “clamour” of tourism that drowned out the city’s tranquillity, and that the “irony of the great calamity that has been the corona pandemic is that it has restored the city’s lost beauty.”

When the country reopens, it will need to rethink how the country has promoted itself to visitors, including taking steps to “prevent over-tourism,” Tetsuo Saito, the transportation minister, told Japan’s parliament in March.

Businesses anxious for the return of tourists have been helped out by large government subsidies and also a boost in domestic tourism that has come as Japanese travellers have become more reluctant to risk the complications, and possible health implications, of taking vacations abroad.

While Japanese officials would like to allow more tourists in as quickly as possible, they are remaining cautious until they see how the domestic situation develops, said Toshifumi Kojima, a ruling party lawmaker.

The country just emerged from a national emergency that was declared as the omicron variant pushed case numbers to record highs. But numbers have been ticking up again in the Tokyo area as locals get out to enjoy the cherry blossoms. The seven-day average as of Thursday was around 42,000, up from about 20,000 a week before.

Since it’s not clear how a sudden influx of tourists would affect the situation, “for the time being, we’re welcoming domestic tourists, Japanese tourists, as a warm-up, and we’re thinking about how to increase inbound tourists from abroad,” Kojima said.

In recent months, countries across Southeast Asia have been busy loosening restraints on international tourism, arguing that their relatively high vaccination rates and their determination to live safely with the virus and resuscitate their moribund tourism sectors warranted a broad resumption of unfettered travel.

A visitor takes a photo under illuminated cherry blossoms in full bloom, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, at Ueno Park in Tokyo, Japan Mar 30, 2022. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations only three — Brunei, Laos and Myanmar — have clung to stringent restrictions on international arrivals. The rest have incrementally shed layers of travel constraints, rolling back quarantine and testing requirements for visitors, starting with Thailand’s Phuket “sandbox” experiment in July 2021 which limited travellers to that heavily touristed island. And in recent weeks, some countries seem to be competing to see who can make travel the most hassle-free for fully vaccinated foreigners.

South Korea, too, is joining the reopening trend, announcing Mar 11 that it would exempt vaccinated visitors from a seven-day quarantine starting Apr 1.

But perhaps the biggest outlier is China. Its zero-COVID strategy has led it to effectively shut its borders, making itself almost inaccessible to tourists and cutting off the region’s biggest single source of tourists.

In comparison to that, Japan’s position is liberal: It is allowing 7,000 people to enter the country each day, a number that includes students, business travellers, residents and Japanese nationals. (It is expected to raise the limit to 10,000 by mid-April.)

Entry requirements remain stiff for most travellers. If you can manage to get a visa, you will need to receive a negative COVID test 72 hours before departure and to be tested again at the airport upon arrival.

Whether or not you will be required to quarantine depends both on where you are travelling from and your vaccination status. Select foreign nationals — including Americans — who can prove that they have received three shots and get a negative test at the airport in Japan are free to travel on. Everyone else will have to deal with some level of quarantine, either at home or in a hotel on the government’s dime.

In an email, Japan’s cultural affairs agency, which assisted with the creation of the new tourism website, said that — while it’s unclear when tourists might be able to return — “there will definitely come a time when it will be possible to visit Japan.”

Until then, “we’re promoting Japan’s charms online.”

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Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher