More than two years after Japan self-isolated to keep the coronavirus at bay, the country is finally on top of many backpackers’ wish lists for loosening entry regulations – to the relief of the travel industry.
After more than two years of effectively banning foreign tourists in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Japan is finally back opening its doors to visitors. And this is the right time considering that a recent global study has put Japan at the top of the must-visit traveller’s list.
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On Wednesday, new regulations went into effect raising the cap on arrivals from 10,000 passengers per day to 20,000 individuals.
Arrivals are also categorized into one of three groups; Blue for people who have had at least two vaccines and 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 be required to quarantine for at least three days.
According to the government, about 80% of arrivals will fall into the blue category, including anyone coming to Japan from Germany.
The travel industry in Japan is eagerly waiting for tourists
Visitors are currently required to join approved tour groups and are carefully monitored, but – if all goes according to plan – this requirement is due to be relaxed on June 10 and travelers will be given more freedom.
The domestic travel industry in Japan is expected to be pleased with the news and hope that further restrictions will be eased soon.
“We’ve been hit hard by the epidemic. We’ve gone from being busy and fully booked months in advance to zero foreign tourists in a matter of weeks,” said Kei Tamura, director of Kyoto-based Cerca Travel Co.
Tamura turned to Japanese travelers and foreign residents of Japan to keep his business afloat, although he admits that he occasionally did. Not all companies survived.
“We are still unable to accept reservations because the lifting of restrictions on June 10 has definitely not been decided,” he said.
“So we’re reaching out to our old customers and partners as we hope.”
Like the rest of the industry, he is encouraged by Japan’s ranking as a number one destination in the Travel and Tourism Report compiled by the World Economic Forum.
Unveiled at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in late May, Japan took first place for the first time, ahead of the United States and Spain in third.
Rising from fourth place in the 2019 rankings, Japan is ranked highly for its wealth of cultural resources and air and railway infrastructure.
In 2019, the last full year before the pandemic devastated the world’s travel sector, 31.88 million foreigners arrived in Japan.
The nation was on track to reach the 40 million mark set for the following year, when Tokyo was due to host the Olympics.
Instead, the Games were postponed until the summer of 2021, strict new travel restrictions were imposed, and the Japanese chose to stay at home rather than vacation abroad.
According to government figures, less than 246,000 foreigners entered Japan in 2021, mostly athletes, Olympic-related media, businessmen, diplomats, and some foreign students.
The annual figure is the lowest since statistics were first collected in 1964.
Low infection numbers
However, the decline in infection numbers raises hopes that the worst of the pandemic may be over.
21,804 new cases of the virus were reported among 125.8 million people in Japan on May 31, down significantly from the peak of 104,345 cases on February 3.
Naomi Mano, president and CEO of luxury travel company Luxurique, said her regular customers are “desperate to return to Japan.”
“Since the first reports in April that the government is considering easing restrictions again, we’ve had a lot of inquiries from people who want to get here again,” she said.
“We’re also seeing a lot of interest from people who’ve put Japan on their priority list for some time, but for whatever reason, they’ve never been able to come,” she said. “Now, these people are booking because they don’t want to wait any longer.”
Manu said the Luxurique is taking reservations from extended families or groups of friends who are planning Thanksgiving or Christmas in Japan.
A typical itinerary takes in Tokyo and the cultural attractions of the former capital of Kyoto.
Many add to the famous art installations on the island of Naoshima, in the inland sea of Japan, the world-famous ski slopes of Niseko in Hokkaido, and, of course, some of the country’s onsen hot springs.
Two years cooperation
“These people have been trapped for more than 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,” Manu said.
Another incentive to make Japan its top destination, she added, is the weakening yen, which makes vacations cheaper than in previous years.
However, the industry accepts that there will be some bumps in the road before Japan’s travel sector fully returns to normal.
The government’s pilot tourism scheme was launched in late May for small groups of closely monitored travelers from a handful of countries.
It hit Monday when a member of a group of four travelers from Thailand was confirmed to have the virus and been placed in an isolation unit in Oita Prefecture, southwest Japan.
“It will take some time,” Kei Tamura agreed.
“I think this summer is too early to expect large numbers of travelers to return, but I believe, and I hope, that by this time next year we will be fully booked again.”
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