Japan seeing few visitors one week after wary border reopening

AFTER more than 2 years, one of the world's most popular travel destinations reopened for tourists. Yet few, if any, came.

No exhausted-yet-exuberant travellers following a flag-carrying tour guide were spotted at Tokyo's Haneda International Airport on Jun 10, when Japan officially reopened its borders and doubled the daily entry limit to 20,000 visitors. The Japanese National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) said it doesn't have any data on tour groups in the week since, and some tour operators have yet to begin their visits.

Last month, Japan's government unveiled, with limited fanfare, an initiative to start letting in visitors and their spending money. The associated restrictions - including mandatory mask-wearing, temperature checks and limited free movement - as well as relatively short notice, appear to be making it difficult to plan for and attract visitors.

"Even right through Jun 10, we weren't sure if there would be a last-minute change," said Andy Eastham, a spokesperson at Wendy Wu Tours, which says it's the largest operator for tourists from the UK, Australia and New Zealand to Japan. "So from a commercial and product perspective, we couldn't do anything until we knew for sure that Japan was open again."

Before the pandemic, Japan was at the peak of a tourism boom, with inbound visitors reaching a record in 2019. Now, the island nation is one of the last remaining rich economies with strict border controls. While airlines, hotels and retailers are all eager to regain the business they lost. The small trickle of foreigners allowed into Japan last year spent 120 billion yen (S$125 million). In 2019, they spent 4.8 trillion yen, or forty times more, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.

Even so, the government is cautious ahead of Jul 10 upper-house elections, with Covid border controls still popular with voters. The island nation released its re-opening guidelines on Jun 7, just 3 days before the announced re-opening date. That didn't give Wendy Wu Tours and other travel agencies much time to prepare marketing campaigns to begin attracting visitors.

Japan soft-launched its re-opening on May 24, when it invited tour operators and officials from abroad to participate in trial trips around the country. Visitors were ushered by Japanese tour staff from one location to the next, with the local guides monitoring their movements and often reminding them to wear masks. It's also not clear how those who flaunt the rules or test positive for Covid-19 will be treated.

"When it comes to restarting tourism, it is imperative that we gain the understanding from people of the host areas and that they feel safe," Tetsuo Saito, the minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, said at a Friday news conference. "It will be vital to balance infection countermeasures with economic activity as we work to recover tourism demand."

With an election looming Prime Minister Fumio Kishida appears to be wary about opening the floodgates for inbound tourists too fast, too soon. The cabinet's approval rating rose to 59 per cent from 55 per cent last month, according to a poll by broadcaster NHK conducted Jun 10 to 12. When asked about the government's moves of doubling the daily limit for inbound tourists, 47 per cent of respondents said the measures are appropriate, 23 per cent said it should further ease restrictions and 20 per cent answered the restrictions should not have been eased.

What's clear is that there's pent-up demand. The JNTO and Japan Tourism Agency report receiving a high amount of visitor requests from overseas. The archipelago topped the World Economic Forum's latest ranking for the Travel & Tourism Development Index. A weaker yen is also making the country a more attractive and affordable destination.

It could be a while until Japan starts to see tourist groups experience a matcha tea ceremony in Kyoto, tackle the ascent of Mount Fuji and witness the holy island of Miyajima. Hironori Katsuse, the chief of Trip.com Japan, said in a recent interview with Bloomberg TV that he expects Japan to fully reopen by the end of the year.

Wendy Wu Tours plans to restart travel packages on Jul 25, touting its "Jewels of Japan" package as being one of the first in the reopening.

"It's a really exciting time for us. We've been waiting for Japan to open for the last few years," said Eastham, adding that their clients don't seem to mind the rules that they will have to follow while visiting Japan. "As you can imagine, we've had up to 3 years of demand for tours." BLOOMBERG

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