Test tourism in Japan is leaving the beleaguered travel industry cold | tourism

Tokyo, Japan – Hiroshi Kawaguchi, director of a tour company in Kyoto, felt a wave of relief after news that Japan would welcome the return of foreign tourists after more than two years of closing borders.

But when Kawaguchi read the small script, his enthusiasm quickly waned.

Under the Japan Tourism Agency’s “experiential tourism” experience announced earlier this month, only 50 visitors from four countries – Australia, Thailand, the United States and Singapore – will be allowed to participate in the tours organized by select travel agencies.

Tour groups will also be limited to visitors who have been vaccinated three times, with a maximum of four people and accompanied by a guide at all times.

The pilot, which comes after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged to ease border restrictions from June, will be used to gather information and refine infection control measures for a broader resumption of tourism at an unspecified later date.

“To control passenger traffic, I can understand the approach,” said Kawaguchi, who runs Oku Japan that specializes in cruise tours for Al Jazeera. “However, it is a very restrictive way of accepting leisure travelers. The travel routes are diverse, separating travelers and focusing on ‘fixed paths’ with the flight leader is kind of odd.”

Kyoto tour guide Hiroshi Kawaguchi believes that the experience of tourism in Japan is not enough [Courtesy of Hiroshi Kawaguchi]

Since Japan closed its borders in April 2020, online travel forums and social media groups have included discussions about the timeline for reopening the country.

Pressure to reopen has increased as other East Asian countries, including South Korea and Malaysia, resume tourism after long periods of isolation, and Japan’s economy faces headwinds amid the yen’s slide to a 20-year low against the US dollar.

Globally, Japan, which has seen several waves of the virus and has reported about 30,300 deaths, is one of the few economies that remain largely closed, along with China and Taiwan.

“After more than two years of de facto isolation, I think we must take the next step as soon as possible,” Yoshi Tomiyama, a tour guide, a sake sommelier and expert in inbound tourism in central Gifu Prefecture, told Al Jazeera, describing the test run as “not enough”.

“While many markets are recovering from the economic hit of COVID-19, the internal market continues to struggle.”

Tomiyama said her business has faded since Japan closed the door to foreign tourists.

“In addition, there has been a sharp drop in the number of jobs in internal support, human resource development, and flight production,” she added. “We hope the restrictions will be removed as soon as possible, following the Prime Minister’s statement on easing border measures in line with G7 levels.”

Yoshi Tomiyama
Yoshi Tomiyama hopes that Japan will fully resume tourism in the near future [Courtesy: Yoshi Tomiyama]

Ann Kyle, CEO of Arigato Travel and operator of the Japan Foreign Tourism Professionals Facebook group, said that while the pilot’s news was welcomed with “cautious optimism,” it would not have a positive impact on the vast majority of those in the industry.

“As we hear more news about the reopening and easing of restrictions for travelers to Japan, there is some hope and positivity in the group,” Kyle told Al Jazeera.

But allowing about 50 vaccinated and boosted travelers to visit as part of organized tours only benefits the old and notable Japanese travel agencies with big pockets and strong leverage. None of the 218 members of [Facebook] The group will benefit from the initial reopening.”

Before the pandemic, Japan was on top of the tourism boom, posting a record number of visitor arrivals between 2012 and 2019 and a 4 trillion yen ($31 billion) market.

After overseas arrivals topped 32 million in 2019, officials expected 40 million visitors in 2020, the year the Tokyo Olympics were due to take place before the pandemic spread.

Although few people expect the Japanese market to return immediately to pre-pandemic levels, Mariko Ito, CEO of travel and incoming advertising agency JOINT ONE, has “high hopes” that inbound tourism will begin to recover by late June or early July.

“I think the government should consider taking concrete measures to speed up the travel and tourism industry as much as possible,” Ito told Al Jazeera.

easing restrictions

While authorities have yet to announce a timetable for a large-scale resumption of tourism, relaxed restrictions on other arrivals, such as international students and foreign workers, are already on the way.

Last week, the government announced that it would double the limit for daily arrivals to 20,000 and ease quarantine and PCR testing regulations for travelers from select countries starting June 1.

Kawaguchi of Oku Japan said tourism could look different once it returns, with less focus on large tour groups than in the past.

“I am not sure this is the beginning of a new era,” he said, “but there must be drastic changes in the requirements and preferences of the traveler.”

Tomiyama, a tour guide in Gifu Prefecture, said that the return of tourists in large numbers may also require some time to get used to the Japanese public.

Tomiyama said that some Japanese may be wary of the willingness of foreign travelers to wear masks and follow COVID-19 control measures everywhere in Japan.

“But we are still keen to welcome people from abroad,” she said. “In fact, we hope more than ever before to welcome tourists to Japan as soon as possible.”

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