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Eased COVID rules 'bright light' for Tokyo's faltering hotels, eateries, but worries remain

The Nakamise shopping promenade in front of Tokyo's Sensoji temple, bustling with visitors in normal times, is seen during the coronavirus state of emergency on Sept. 9, 2021. A traditional "ningyoyaki" sweet shop on the street had a notice posted saying, "The shop is in an emergency." (Mainichi/Naotsune Umemura)

TOKYO -- While Japan's current coronavirus state of emergency has been extended until the end of September in Tokyo and 18 other prefectures, the central government has also revealed plans allowing areas under emergency or quasi-emergency declarations to gradually loosen pandemic restrictions. But how has this news been received by proprietors in the hospitality industry, which has been put through the economic wringer by the COVID-19 crisis?

    Tokyo's Asakusa area is a popular destination for domestic and foreign tourists alike, a fact The B Asakusa hotel had hoped to capitalize on when it opened on a prime corner spot in the district in October 2018.

    "We were counting on inbound tourist demand," a representative of the firm that managed the hotel told the Mainichi Shimbun. But the pandemic changed everything. At the end of April 2020, just a year and a half after opening, The B Asakusa closed its doors for good. "Infections would not be brought under control quickly, so we were forced to conclude that closing was the best option," they said.

    Tokyo's Taito Ward, where Asakusa is located, was swept by a rush of new accommodation building starting in about 2018. In just a few years, its number of inns and hotels swelled from the 400 range to more than 700, leading all 23 of the Japanese capital's wards. The coronavirus was a bucket of cold water over all of it.

    According to Taito Ward, it welcomed 55.83 million visitors (9.53 million of them from overseas) in 2018. In 2020, that was down to 16.31 million, with 1.45 million of them foreign travelers. Total overnight stayers also went from 8.24 million people (2.06 million of them overseas visitors) to 2.23 million people (270,000 of them from outside Japan) over the same period. The accommodations rush went into reverse, with 64 establishments submitting closure notifications in fiscal 2020 -- the most since fiscal 2007.

    Price competition among hotels to attract remaining visitors turned into a war of attrition. One hotel in Asakusa dropped its price to 3,000 yen (about $27) per night, or about 30% of the pre-pandemic charge. Hotels around the district apparently all slashed their fees starting around June this year, and that hotel in Asakusa had no choice but to follow suit. Even charging so little, the establishment can only fill about 60% of its rooms per night.

    "If we drop our prices once, I'm worried that customers won't come back when we put them back up," said the hotel's manager. "I'm afraid we'll get an image as a 'cheap hotel.'"

    The manager sees the proposed loosening of COVID-19 restrictions as a good sign, but worries remain.

    Under the government's proposed changes to state of emergency and quasi-emergency restrictions, people who have been vaccinated or meet other conditions will no longer be requested to not cross prefectural boundaries, while restaurants and bars meeting certain standards will be permitted to serve alcohol.

    In Asakusa, however, seniors apparently make up the core visitor demographic. "The elderly are frightened of the coronavirus, and I just don't think they'll come back right away even if restrictions are eased," the hotel manager said.

    Meanwhile, restaurant and bar businesses are just barely holding on. Koichi Yamahata, the 48-year-old proprietor of the izakaya pub Nihonshu Hotaru in Tokyo's Kanda neighborhood, said of the coming changes to coronavirus restrictions, "It's a bit of a bright spot, but I'm also worried."

    Nihonshu Hotaru is currently only open for lunch, and sales are about 20% of what they were pre-pandemic. While loosening restrictions on activities may restore conditions to something close to normal, "I wonder if easing them won't lead straight to complacency and result in rules being reimposed around year's end and the new year," said Yamahata. The thought makes him anxious.

    (Japanese original by Shintaro Iguchi and Shotaro Kinoshita, Tokyo City News Department)

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