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Hokkaido Companies Consider Travel Packages Including PCR Testing

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tatsuo Sato, chairman of the Hokkaido Travel Agents Association, speaks in an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun.

The tourism industry in Hokkaido has been hit especially hard by the spread of the novel coronavirus, as many tourism-related companies there are small and lack financial resources.

Tatsuo Sato, the chairman of the Hokkaido Association of Travel Agents, said in a recent interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun that the association’s member companies are considering new travel packages that incorporate PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing and other measures to ensure a safe travel environment. Sato founded the travel agency Sapporo Air Tourist Inc. in 1996. The following is excerpted from the interview.

Infections spread here in February, and travel companies that work mainly with foreign visitors were the first affected. Since then, the impact has expanded to the whole travel industry. Looking back, May was the worst month. Sales of many companies decreased by 80% to 90% from the previous year, and one member company saw sales fall by 97%.

Many companies closed down for a while when they had almost no work. The postponement of the opening of Upopoy (National Ainu Museum and Park) was also a blow to us because we were counting on that.

In the past, the travel industry was hit by the overseas spread of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and the Great East Japan Earthquake. But the impacts of those catastrophes were temporary. As recovery from disasters progressed, company sales also recovered. The situation caused by the novel coronavirus is unprecedented.

In a survey that our association conducted in May, 77 of 114 companies said their cash flow was “bad” or “very bad” at that time, and 93 of them said they expected it to be “bad” or “very bad” in the future.

Thanks to the generous support provided by the central government in the form of benefits to help businesses to sustain their operations, and the employment adjustment subsidy, none of the 252 member companies are considering closing down permanently. However, our member companies remain in a difficult situation, as many of them are small businesses, including mom-and-pop operations.

The employment adjustment subsidy is paid to companies with employees taking time off from work. For this reason, companies run by a married couple as executives and sole personnel cannot receive this subsidy even if they are closed. We would appreciate it if the central government could consider that point a little more.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Few people are seen in a street lined with souvenir shops in Otaru, Hokkaido, in April 2020, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

■ Reliance on campaigns

The business performance of our member companies began to improve in July. Around September and October, they saw 70% to 80% of sales from the same months the previous year, thanks to a series of campaigns such as Go To Travel, and a travel discount program for Hokkaido residents called Domin-wari.

However, since late November, the central government has called on residents in Sapporo, where infections have increased, to refrain from traveling through its Go To Travel campaign, and it announced a nationwide suspension of the campaign on Dec. 14. I think it can’t be helped, but it was a big blow to travel agencies because the homecoming season during the year-end and New Year holidays was approaching. Travel agencies may be busy with cancellation procedures instead.

The campaign will be suspended until Jan. 11, but we can’t see whether infections will be under control by that time. If the suspension were to be extended, we travel agencies would be in a more difficult situation. Vaccines should be developed as soon as possible and measures should be taken to compensate businesses for lost profits.

Since Hokkaido residents do not usually travel in November or December, it is expected that the impact on our industry will be most significant after January. The difficult situation is expected to continue until around March.

However, if the outbreak has subsided, we hope to sell travel products that include PCR testing. If a customer’s test results are negative, both the customer and the facilities they visit may feel safe. As a possible operation method, we can provide a way to have tour participants take tests after they gather at an airport. To realize that, I think it is necessary to expand the implementation of PCR testing.

Travel procedures are increasingly done online, and things have changed dramatically. However, many of our association’s members are small businesses, and the managers of these companies are aging. Many companies still rely on fax and telephone services. In this difficult situation, some managers need pension income to live.

We are concerned about the massive staff cuts that major travel agencies are planning, as it may result in a decrease in the number of young people seeking to enter travel industry. It is necessary to carry out educational activities such as seminars in order to attract youth interest to the industry. If the number of travel companies decreases in the future, we can’t survive as an association.

We hope the central and local governments will continuously implement measures even if they are not large-scale. I think it would be good for the governments to launch campaigns to give preferential treatment to medical professionals who want to travel after the COVID-19 crisis is contained. Is it not the role of the central government to provide positive information for the future?