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Editorial: Japan must keep eye on state of COVID infections when welcoming tourists back

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has announced that Japan will start welcoming foreign tourists into the country again on June 10.

    It will be the first time in roughly two years that Japan will open its doors to tourists from abroad since the country shut its borders in the spring of 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It is a step toward the revival of inbound tourism, but it is necessary to proceed with caution from the perspective of preventing the spread of infections.

    The government began easing restrictions on foreign arrivals this spring, welcoming business travelers and students, among others. The United States and many countries in Europe and Asia already allow overseas tourists.

    In 2019, the number of foreign visitors to Japan reached 31.88 million, and related spending hit 4.8 trillion yen (about $37.8 billion). With COVID-19 case numbers staying relatively low in the country, the government decided to begin accepting tourists again following requests from the tourism industry, which has been hit hard financially by the pandemic.

    The measures will apply to 98 countries and regions where the infection risk is low, including Europe and the U.S., China, South Korea and Taiwan. For the time being, entry will be limited to escorted tours.

    The government plans to cap entry at 20,000 people per day, including Japanese nationals, and tourists will be accepted within this scope. It will continue to request pre-departure coronavirus tests, but not require them upon entering the country.

    The government first needs to pay attention to the state of infections domestically and abroad, and respond flexibly. If a new coronavirus variant suspected of causing severe COVID-19 surfaces overseas, then the government should not hesitate to reimpose restrictions.

    This week, the Japan Tourism Agency began experimental tours, accepting tourists from four countries including the U.S. The agency will examine infection control measures and the response when someone is infected with the coronavirus, and compile guidelines for tour operators. It is essential to thoroughly publicize the details and update them as required.

    There is also a need to have visitors to Japan understand the country's anti-infections measures, including wearing masks on trains and crowded indoor spaces.

    Prime Minister Kishida stated that Japan would aim to accept tourists just as it had done before the pandemic "in steps" while looking at the state of infections.

    Before the pandemic, the government aspired to make Japan a tourism-oriented country, and sought to welcome 40 million visitors in 2020, but the coronavirus put an abrupt halt to these plans.

    Recently, the weak yen has made travel to Japan cheaper. Expectations for visitors to Japan are rising within the ruling parties, but they should not respond hastily. Japan would be putting the cart before the horse if it focused excessively on restoring inbound tourism only for that to get in the way of coronavirus countermeasures.

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