Japan’s eased border measures from Wednesday, including raising a daily cap on arrivals from 20,000 to 50,000, will not result in a surge of tourists to pull its economy unless they do enjoy greater freedom to travel within the country, according to industry officials.
They say tourists will continue to bypass Japan for friendlier countries despite a cheap yen as the government’s decision to lower the entry bar remains restrictive, hampered by its continued caution in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told a news conference last week that he wanted Japan to “join the trend” as people start moving to other parts of the world.
To that end, a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departure has been waived for the supposedly less compelling proof of triple vaccinations. Tourists will also no longer be required to be accompanied by guides.
According to data released on August 26 by the Japan Tourism Agency, the top five countries with the most people planning to visit Japan were South Korea, the United States, Thailand, Australia and France.
An official from major Japanese travel agency HIS Co. said he was pleased with the easing of restrictions for overseas visitors, with the added hope that if air routes in Southeast Asia reopen, more sales of tickets will result in higher profits.
But arrivals will be well below the daily average of more than 140,000 in 2019.
“It is difficult to project an increase in tourist numbers if restrictions are not completely lifted on visas, the daily entry cap and individual trips,” a tourism industry official said.
Japan continues to suspend its visa waivers, unlike neighboring South Korea which recently extended its visa waiver for Japanese citizens until the end of October.
Travelers to Japan must apply for a visa, which normally takes five days to issue, and the fee for a single-entry visa is around 3,000 yen ($21).
In addition, organized trips remain a special outing.
When Japan lifted its total ban on tourists on June 10, 252 arrived in the country that month and only 7,903 came in July.
“Foreign tourists, especially Westerners, attach great importance to having their own free time. They avoided Japan because of its rules on escorted package tours,” said an executive at a major travel agency.
Now the government has decided that tourists can take advantage of self-guided travel through ‘unaccompanied package tours’, allowing greater mobility than in the past, in food choices and places to visit.
But they would still be forced to purchase fixed products including airfare and accommodation, a restrictive and generally unpopular choice.
In 2019, before the pandemic, only 7% of tourists to Japan took package tours.
The government does not believe it can fully ease the movement of foreign tourists, as the country grapples with its seventh pandemic wave, even though its borders are tight.
Concerned that triple-vaccinated tourists will not follow Japan’s masking and other anti-virus guidelines without reminders, he asked the Japan Tourism Agency to ask tour operators to explain them to their customers.
The government is also concerned that a non-Japanese tourist who suddenly falls ill may find it difficult to get proper care without someone familiar with the country’s language and medical system.
Japan may have to continue to seek a comfortable compromise between welcoming tourists and mitigating COVID-19 risks.
It may also be some time before large numbers of Chinese tourists, known for their shopping sprees but now discouraged from traveling abroad by their government’s strict “zero-COVID” policy, return.