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Japan prepares to reopen borders to foreign tourists for 1st time in 2 years

People affiliated with a travel agency in Thailand arrive at Fukuoka Airport in Fukuoka's Hakata Ward as part of the Japanese government's overseas tourist trial, on May 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Tomohisa Yazu)

TOKYO -- Japan will resume accepting overseas tourists in June, after keeping its borders closed for some two years during the coronavirus pandemic. Although there is mounting anticipation in the tourism industry, the world at large is still grappling with COVID-19, and Japan's economy has shifted dramatically under the weight of price rises. So, will foreign tourists really return to the country?

    "The situation reminiscent of the 'sakoku' policy during the Edo period will finally end," a senior executive at a major travel agency said, referring to the "closed country" policy adopted in Japan for over 200 years during the Edo period (1603-1867).

    Japan has been criticized from both within and outside the country for keeping its rigid pandemic border control measures, in contrast with European countries and the United States. Following tourism industry and the business community requests to relax its order measures, the Japanese government began allowing entry to business people and foreign students in March. The government will raise the daily cap on entrants to 20,000 on June 1 -- double the current number -- and overseas tourists will be allowed into the country from June 10.

    At first, tourist arrivals will be limited to guided package tours. Countries and regions are classified into three COVID-19 risk categories -- "blue," "yellow" and "red" -- and Japan will accept tourists from 98 countries and regions in the lowest "blue" risk group, including the U.S., China, South Korea and Taiwan. In addition to Tokyo's Haneda Airport, Narita International Airport, Chubu Centrair International Airport, Kansai International Airport and Fukuoka Airport, international flights will also be resumed at New Chitose and Naha airports.

    The Japanese government will have guides ask tour participants to take thorough anti-infection measures. Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, asked at a May 27 House of Representatives budget committee session, "People who enter Japan from countries without mask mandates don't even have masks. How is infection prevention going to be ensured?" Prime Minister Fumio Kishida responded that "visitors must obey Japan's mask rules."

    Ahead of reopening Japan to tourism, the government accepted small test groups of sightseers from the U.S., Australia, Thailand and Singapore. On May 24, the first group of seven people arrived from Los Angeles and Hawaii. During the trial, the Japanese government plans to examine anti-infection measures, and create guidelines for tourism businesses.

    While Japan marked a record 31.88 million in overseas arrivals in pre-pandemic 2019, the number of foreign visitors in 2021 fell to 245,900, the lowest figure since statistics began to be collected in 1964. Is there still global interest in Japan even after the country closed its borders for so long?

    An October 2021 survey by the Development Bank of Japan and other parties, targeting Europe, the United States, Australia and Asia, found that Japan was the place people most wanted to visit next in all regions. People in Asian countries were especially keen to make Japan their first choice, surpassing second place South Korea by over 20 percentage points.

    According to Laura Houldsworth, managing director for the Asia-Pacific at, a major online travel agency headquartered in Amsterdam, users in Europe, the U.S. and Australia frequently search the site for accommodation in Japan. She said that many people have realized that travel is important to them after the coronavirus pandemic virtually shut down international tourism. She added that customers increasingly seeking unique experiences and who have never been to Japan are showing strong interest in its scenery and food.

    -- No prospect for full lifting of restrictions

    Tour participants from Singapore relax at the Senjojiki tourist spot in Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture, on May 27, 2022. (Mainichi/Yukihiro Takeuchi)

    Eijiro Yamakita, president of Japanese travel giant JTB Corp., expressed hope for the future during a news conference on May 27 to announce the company's financial results.

    "We've been flooded with inquiries from overseas, and it's an important step toward recovery," he said. But while expectations are high on the receiving end, it appears it will be some time before sightseeing spots are again bustling with tourists.

    The government has capped the number of arrivals in Japan at 10,000 per day by allocating a set number of flights to airlines, among other measures. From June, the cap will be raised to 20,000 per day, but this is still a far cry from the average 100,000-plus daily arrivals pre-pandemic. Moreover, the 20,000 will include Japanese residents returning from business trips and other travel abroad.

    To increase the number of visitors to Japan, it will be necessary to raise the cap and fully lift the entry restrictions for tourism. The business community and the travel industry are seeking an early end to the upper limit, but deep-seated concerns over coronavirus infections linger in regional areas, and it remains unclear when this could happen.

    Not only domestic policy, but other countries' coronavirus prevention policies influence arrival trends. While Western countries have eased restrictions including testing upon arrival, strict border control measures continue in some countries and regions neighboring Japan, including China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Before the pandemic, these three areas accounted for over 50% of arrivals to Japan. China in particular has firmly maintained a zero-COVID-19 policy that aims to completely shut out the virus, and it has continued a strict policy of isolation upon arrival. It will probably be some time before the sight of busloads of tour groups descending on duty-free stores for shopping sprees returns.

    Current economic conditions are also a cause for concern. While the unparalleled depreciation of the yen will help attract visitors to Japan, airfares are expected to rise due to high oil prices following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Western countries are also facing historic levels of inflation, and there are concerns that people may be in no mind to travel.

    Yoshihiro Sataki, a professor at Josai International University who specializes in tourism, commented, "Japan has underlying potential as a tourist destination. But its 'isolationist' policy gives the impression that infection prevention measures are strict, and it's possible that some people in the West who are no longer wearing masks could shy away from the country.

    "Some time will be need to recover," he added. "Before visitors to Japan make a full-scale return, we should orchestrate measures to ease congestion."

    (Japanese original by Ryotaro Ikawa, Business News Department, and Junya Higuchi, Political News Department)

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