Japan is open to travel.  So why aren't tourists coming back?

Japan is open to travel. So why aren’t tourists coming back?

This is especially evident in Japan, which reopened with great fanfare in June 2022, just in time for the peak tourist season. About 1,500 tourists visited the country between June 10 and July 10, according to the Japan Immigration Service Agency. it down 95% for the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.

So what is causing the mismatch? And why are travelers so slow to return to what has historically been a popular destination?

No safety in numbers

Although Japan is accessible again, the country currently only allows tourists to come in organized groups and not alone. For many in the West who prefer spontaneity and do not want to follow a strict route, this issue has become a decisive factor.

“We don’t need to be nannies,” says Melissa Musiker, a New York-based public relations professional who travels regularly to Japan.

Musiker and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times”. The couple planned to visit again in 2022 when they heard that the borders were reopening, but were frustrated by the restrictions and gave up.

Instead, they choose a new destination and go on vacation to South Korea.

“We don’t want to quarantine. That was an important factor,” says Musiker. “We just like to go around and mess around and shop and eat expensive sushi.”

Preferring city visits over relaxing on the beach tipped the scales in Seoul’s favor, as did her pandemic-fueled addiction to Korean dramas.

The Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, Japan was usually surrounded by tourists and street vendors.

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Semi open not open

Japan’s policy of incomplete openness is not limited to visas. The country still has mask-wearing regulations in place in many areas, group tours can be expensive, and Japan requires quarantine upon arrival, making it difficult to sell.

Cathy Tam is the co-founder of Arry, a members-only subscription platform that helps visitors to Japan book tables at some of Tokyo’s most sought-after restaurants, such as Obama-approved restaurants. Sukiyabashi Jiro and a recent list of the best restaurants in Asia Den.

Before the pandemic, many of Arry’s users were Asian travelers living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, or Singapore who visited Japan several times a year, or who might just spontaneously come over long weekends. However, the company has had to take a break since 2020.

“We didn’t know it would take this long,” she says of what was supposed to be a short break. “It was definitely tough.”

According to Tam, the few participants who started contacting Arry again about bookings were able to get business visas to Japan. It is currently the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as individual visitors, and some are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to get seats at restaurants they could not book before.

However, there is one good news. Despite the challenges, many of Japan’s best eateries are doing well amid the pandemic.

“Many of the restaurants we work with have a strong local customer base,” says Tam. On the other hand, this means that these popular places will still be open when foreign tourists can come.

According to the Immigration Services Agency, the two largest markets for Japanese tourism are currently Thailand and South Korea. But the “biggest” here is relative – about 400 people from each country have visited Japan since June. Only 150 arrived from the United States.

Before the pandemic, the narrow streets of Kyoto were packed with visitors.

Before the pandemic, the narrow streets of Kyoto were packed with visitors.

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

China effect

In 2019, Japan’s largest tourism market was neighboring China, with 9.25 million Chinese visitors.

Now, however, China remains virtually isolated from the rest of the world. The country still has strict quarantine protocols for both citizens and foreigners, bringing tourism to a halt.

Japan is not the only country that has been hit hard by lack of Chinese travelers. Popular destinations for Chinese tourists such as Australia, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea have lost revenue as more than a billion potential travelers stay at home.
Tokyo Skytree is the tallest building in Japan.

Tokyo Skytree is the tallest building in Japan.

Rodrigo Reyes Marine/AFLO/Reuters

Hiroyuki Ami, head of public relations for Tokyo Skytree, says it wasn’t until June 27 that the first international tour group arrived at the observation deck. The group in question consisted of guests from Hong Kong.

The city’s financial center has strict restrictions, including a mandatory hotel quarantine for returning residents, but it’s still easier for tourists to travel from there than from mainland China.

“Before Covid,” says Ami, “the largest number (foreigners) were from China, but I haven’t seen them lately.” .

“The fact that tourist arrivals have resumed does not mean that we have many clients from abroad,” he adds.

Waiting in the wings

There is a good chance that when and if Japan decides to fully open up to individual tourists, they will want to come. catchphrase “journey of revengewas created to describe people who have saved up their money during Covid and now want to spend it on a big wish list trip and Japan remains a popular wish list destination.

“There is huge interest in going back to Japan,” says Tam, co-founder of Arry. “I think it’s going to take away.”

Kathleen Benosa of CNN Tokyo contributed to the story.

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