Japan’s ‘trial tourism’ leaves beleaguered travel industry cold | Tourism

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Tokyo, Japan – Hiroshi Kawaguchi, the operator of a travel agency in Kyoto, felt a wave of relief when he learned that Japan would welcome the return of foreign tourists after more than two years of closed borders.

But as Kawaguchi read the fine print, his enthusiasm quickly waned.

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

Tour groups will also be limited to visitors who are triply vaccinated, limited to four people and accompanied by a guide at all times.

The trial, which follows Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s pledge to ease border restrictions from June, will be used to gather information and refine infection control measures for a wider resumption of tourism in an unspecified later date.

“To control the movement of travelers, I can understand the approach,” Kawaguchi, who runs sustainability-focused tour operator Oku Japan, told Al Jazeera. “However, this is a very restricted way of accepting leisure travellers. The means of transport are diverse, and separating travelers and focusing only on “fixed routes” with an attendant is rather strange.”

Kyoto-based tour guide Hiroshi Kawaguchi says Japan’s tourism trial doesn’t go far enough [Courtesy of Hiroshi Kawaguchi]

Since Japan closed its borders in April 2020, online travel forums and social media groups have been buzzing about the timing of the country’s reopening.

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

Globally, Japan, which has seen multiple waves of the virus and reported around 30,300 deaths, is one of the few economies that remain largely shut down, along with China and Taiwan.

“After more than two years of de facto isolation, I think we should take the next step as soon as possible,” Yoshi Tomiyama, a tour guide, sake sommelier and inbound tourism specialist in the prefecture, told Al Jazeera. Gifu Central, describing the test. considered “insufficient”.

“While many markets are recovering from the economic blow of COVID-19, the inbound market is still struggling.”

Tomiyama said his business has withered since Japan closed the door to foreign tourists.

“On top of that, there has been a drastic decrease in the number of jobs in inbound support, human resource development and tour production,” she said. “We hope the restrictions will be lifted as soon as possible, following the Prime Minister’s statement to ease border measures in line with G7 levels.”

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

Anne Kyle, CEO of Arigato Travel and operator of the Facebook group Japan Foreign Tourism Professionals, said that while news of the pilot was greeted with “cautious optimism”, it will not have any positive effect for the vast majority of people. working in the industry.

“As we hear more news about the reopening and easing of travel restrictions in Japan, there is hope and positivity in the bunch,” Kyle told Al Jazeera.

“But allowing around 50 vaccinated and boosted travelers to visit on organized tours only benefits older, top-tier Japanese travel companies with deep pockets and powerful lobbying powers. No one among the 218 members of the [Facebook] group will benefit from the initial reopening.

Before the pandemic, Japan was at the peak of a tourism boom, with a record number of inbound visitors between 2012 and 2019 and a market worth around 4 trillion yen ($31 billion).

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

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

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

Easing of restrictions

While authorities have yet to announce a timetable for the widespread resumption of tourism, looser restrictions for other arrivals, such as international students and foreign workers, are already underway.

Last week, the government announced it would double the cap on daily arrivals to 20,000 and ease quarantine and PCR testing regulations for travelers from certain countries from June 1.

Oku Japan’s Kawaguchi said tourism could be different once back, with potentially less emphasis on large tour groups than in the past.

“I’m not sure this is the start of a new era, but there should be drastic changes in traveler demands and preferences,” he said.

Tomiyama, the tour guide based in Gifu Prefecture, said the return of tourists in large numbers could also take some getting used to for Japanese audiences.

Some Japanese, Tomiyama said, might be wary of foreign travelers’ willingness to wear masks and follow Japan’s ubiquitous COVID-19 control measures.

“But we remain eager to welcome people from abroad,” she said. “In fact, more than ever, we very much hope to welcome tourists to Japan as soon as possible.”

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