Japan’s cautious approach to opening up

With some of the world’s strictest border controls, Japan’s inbound tourism sector has taken a battering during the past two years of the pandemic. It was welcome news for many, then, when the Japanese government announced in May that it was taking steps towards re-opening to international visitors.

Given Japan’s risk-averse approach, it seemed unlikely that tourists would be flooding in—at least, not at first. However, there has been barely a trickle of tourists so far, along with frustration and confusion for industry professionals and potential visitors alike.

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Several Japan-based New Zealanders working in the tourism sector shared their experiences and insights, including Tony Everitt, who resides in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park area. He is the director of Hike Hakone Hachiri, which runs guided tours along the historic Tokaido Road.

The Japanese government is taking steps to open the country up for tourists again, but so far, visitor numbers remain low. Photo by Nicki Eliza Schinow on Unsplash  

“Japan’s cautiously-staged approach to re-opening is consistent with the thoroughness that prevails in decision-making here. It’s this same thoroughness that ensures a visit to Japan is a memorable, safe and hygienic experience—factors that have helped spur the growth of inbound tourism over the last decade,” Everitt says.

There are few doubts that Japan is a desirable destination. In a recently-released travel and tourism report by the World Economic Forum, it topped the list of countries, winning points for its cultural resources and infrastructure.

Japan’s continued commitment to masking and other safety measures also makes it very attractive in the Covid-19 era. Ongoing efforts to combat the virus align well with those of New Zealand. However, the stringent entry rules and the high costs involved are putting trips to Japan out of reach for most Kiwis.

In principle, tourism opened up again on 10 June, when citizens from 98 countries—including New Zealand—were allowed in. Visitors need a visa and must sign up for a pre-approved package tour, which essentially means being chaperoned by a guide throughout the entire trip. Independent travel is currently not permitted.

The latest government data showed that international visitors in June exceeded 100,000 for the third straight month after the easing of entry measures. Closer examination, however, reveals that just 252 of these were bonafide tourists, with the remainder likely to be business people, students or technical trainees, for whom restrictions have been eased. Close family members of foreign residents in Japan are also eligible for entry, if they can meet various conditions to obtain the necessary visa.

Independent travel around Japan has become a lot harder following Covid, as opening up to tourists is happening gradually. Photo by Raghavendra Prasad on Unsplash  

Lost Opportunities for Businesses and Travellers

The current system is causing confusion among people eager to travel again, says Gerard O’Sullivan, a Kiwi based in Himeji, Hyogo prefecture. O’Sullivan runs a group called Go to Japan on Facebook. “I was planning to launch a local guide service in Himeji just as the pandemic started, but with borders closed I kept my day job and launched the Facebook group instead, to help guides and tourists navigate through the mixed messages—or lack of messaging—about the border and visa situation,” he says.

According to inbound travel operators, among the reported hurdles for incoming visitors are difficulties with getting the necessary entry visas processed in their home countries, and the prohibitive expense of booking a fully-guided tour—which can bump up the typical cost of a visit by three or four times the pre-pandemic level. Moreover, the registration procedures for package tour operators are skewed towards larger companies, which may shut out smaller providers who would normally cater for independent travellers.

Current rules for foreign tourists may push smaller tourism operators out of the market. Photo by Mike Swigunski on Unsplash  

“For small agencies like mine, the new system means that every booking requires much, much more work to coordinate, and far too much time is spent dealing with inquiries that inevitably lead nowhere,” says Dara Robinson, a New Zealander who works as a consultant with Omakase Tours in Tokyo. “Only wealthy people with money to burn will be interested in travelling to Japan in this way, and it completely destroys the chance of serendipitous encounters and discovering a local side of Japan outside of the tourist hubs.”

After the widely-praised hosting of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and with the Olympics on the horizon, Japan was on track to meet a goal of 40 million tourists in 2020, but those figures seem very distant now.

“There’s no way they can scale up structured tours to even 40,000 tourists, let alone 40 million. Meanwhile, they’re missing one of Japan’s greatest appeals to tourists: the amazing transport infrastructure, which is perfect for independent travellers—especially rugged individuals like us Kiwis,” O’Sullivan points out.

Japan’s Government on the Fence

In a recent press briefing, Koichi Wada, head of the JTA (Japan Tourism Agency), noted that he expected the numbers of inbound tourists to rise in the near future. Many people hoped that the government would make an announcement following the recent elections, but nothing has been forthcoming.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who was returned to power in July, is grappling with various issues that seem likely to cause further delays. The assassination of his predecessor Shinzo Abe on July 8 left the nation reeling in shock, closely followed by another rise in Covid-19 infections.

Earlier this year the government was set to re-introduce a nationwide travel subsidy program to stimulate domestic demand, but the latest wave of infections has seen that plan go on hold. Given the limited numbers of people who can enter Japan right now, the rise in infections can’t be linked to the increase in overseas entrants. Even so, the new wave might be cited as justification for halting the easing of border controls for now.

Numbers of tourists coming into Japan were expected to rise, but difficulties with limits and regulations have meant promised waves of tourists haven't appeared. Photo by Jay Lo on Unsplash  

Watching and Waiting for Change

“Almost all other countries have now moved on from Covid-19 and have opened up with few restrictions, Japan’s continual closure is causing many of our potential customers to choose alternative destinations,” says Robinson.

Tim Bunting is the project manager for Megurun Inc., which offers yamabushi (mountain ascetic) training experiences in the Dewa Sanzan mountains in Yamagata prefecture. Bunting notes that he and his colleagues have seen a growing number of enquiries about their tours recently, with some actual business resulting from internationals who have been able to enter for other purposes, such as business trips or to visit family. “Either way, it has been a lot of extra work and a big hassle that simply isn’t necessary in other countries,” he says.

“I was hoping for an announcement after the election, but nothing of the sort as of yet. I’m unsure as to whether Japan will truly come in line with G7 nations as Prime Minister Kishida earlier proclaimed, but am hopeful that restrictions will be loosened sometime soon,” Bunting says pragmatically.

Meanwhile, as its neighbours in Asia move forward with rebuilding their tourism sectors, Japan’s industry professionals can only watch and wait.

 - Asia Media Centre