Starting from October, the Japanese government's Go To Travel subsidy program to get the tourism sector out of its coronavirus crisis doldrums is set to be expanded to include Tokyo residents and businesses. Though the capital had initially been excluded, the government has judged that new infection rates are trending downward, allowing Tokyo to get in on the campaign.
The pandemic has caused a severe drop in tourism demand, forcing the accommodation sector and related businesses to shed many of their workers. Including Tokyo in the Go To program should give the industry a boost.
However, new infection numbers in the capital still surpass 200 on some days. It seems unlikely that regional Japan can avoid the greater infection risk that will come with more visits to and from Tokyo. Very strict attention must be paid to whether local health infrastructure is being stressed by rising case numbers.
The Go To campaign was launched in late July, just when coronavirus case numbers were surging again. Shortly after that, Okinawa and Aichi prefectures instituted their own states of emergency, while many local governments urged people not to visit during the Obon homecoming holiday in August. Even now, there are plenty of lodging operators nervous about the virus spreading in their areas. Some 40% of accommodation businesses are not participating in Go To, and thus cannot benefit from its largesse.
A total of about 7.8 million people have tapped the subsidy program so far, and yet passengers on domestic flights and shinkansen bullet trains remain startlingly few. It would appear that a great many of the 7.8 million Go To travelers have used the program to visit local tourist spots by car.
Most travelers, accommodation businesses and local governments alike seem to be taking caution and making thorough anti-infection efforts, and it is due to this diligence that the medical system has not been overwhelmed. Verifying how tourist spots have dealt with the coronavirus risk and the impact these measures have had on infection trends is essential, as is using the conclusions effectively going forward. We would like to see experts analyze the risks of expanding the Go To program to Tokyo, and for them to publicize points we need to be careful about.
Meanwhile, as the Go To subsidy is percentage-based, some observers have pointed out that it disproportionately increases stays at high-priced luxury lodgings. To support local economic recovery, the managers of the program's finances must consider spreading the aid as fairly as possible.
Also, in relation to virus control measures, entry restrictions for sports venues, theaters and the like are set to be relaxed beginning on Sept. 19, the start of a four-day weekend. Preparations are also being made for a "Go To Eat" campaign to help eateries deal with the coronavirus crisis.
Furthermore, if we see signs the virus is beginning to spread again, can the Go To campaigns be scaled back? How can local medical systems be supported? Deep debate on these questions and more is a must.
On a related note, considering that the infection situation and medical infrastructure differ by region, then surely it is necessary to respect to the utmost the independence of local governments in helping promote regional tourism.
Amid strong continued caution over the coronavirus, frenetically shoveling fuel into Japan's economic engine may get us nowhere, and we need to have the flexibility to hit the brakes if needed.