Tourism industry takes big step on recovery path

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tourists from Thailand, who came to Japan under a trial visit operated by the Japan Tourism Agency, shop in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, on May 30.

Japan started welcoming back foreign travelers on package tours Friday, a key step raising expectations that the tourism sector battered by the novel coronavirus pandemic will be able to get back on its feet. The government, which has gradually brought inbound tourism back on the path to recovery, will be tested over how to prevent the wider spread of infections in Japan after the tourists return.

Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) President Shin Kaneko has high hopes the reopening of Japan’s borders will have a positive impact.

“I have very high expectations,” Kaneko said at a press conference Thursday. “We’ll move ahead with preparations to provide services that will enable visitors to have an enjoyable trip here.”

The number of passengers traveling by train has steadily recovered as the number of coronavirus infections has declined. However, the return of overseas visitors would be a significant shot in the arm for JR Tokai’s business performance. The company is making efforts to introduce additional multilingual announcements at stations and in trains.

Arrangements to accommodate the arrival of foreign tourists are also being put in place elsewhere. Kansai Airports, which operates Kansai International Airport, will introduce 250 Pocketalk automatic translation devices Friday to facilitate smooth communication with inbound travelers. “Visitors from overseas will definitely start coming back,” Kansai Airports Chief Executive Officer Yoshiyuki Yamaya said. “I hope entry restrictions will be steadily eased further.”

South Korean low-cost carrier Air Busan launched a weekly flight between Kansai International Airport and Seoul’s Incheon Airport on May 27. The airline also plans to restart flights between this Kansai airport and Busan from July. “We’ve taken a big step forward,” said the head of the airline’s Osaka branch.

The Nippon Travel Agency’s office in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, has received a surge of inquiries from overseas travel agencies about what sort of precautions tourists should follow to prevent the spread of infections while they are in Japan, and on issues such as how to obtain visas. The number of such inquiries has more than tripled since the government announced the borders would reopen. “The weaker yen is also a tailwind for visitors,” an official of the travel agency said.

Shaking off ‘sakoku’

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Domestic travel agencies that operate package tours in Japan will act as a “receiving organization” for inbound visitors. These agencies will ensure tourists wear masks and handle any visitor who tests positive for coronavirus. These organizations will input each tourist’s passport details and where they will stay in Japan into the government’s Entrants, Returnees Follow-up System (ERFS). People wishing to participate in a tour will take a certificate showing their ERFS registration has been completed to a Japanese overseas diplomatic establishment and then apply for a visa.

The path to reopening the door to tourists in this manner involved many twists and turns. Some Western media outlets compared Japan’s strict border control measures imposed in response to the pandemic to the “sakoku” period of national isolation from the 17th to 19th century. In late April, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara advised Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to take action. “The world is saying Japan is locking everyone out. We should sweep away this policy,” Kihara said.

Kishida decided to relax some restrictions. In a speech in London on May 5, Kishida said, “We will ease border control measures significantly in June when Japan will introduce a smoother entry process similar to that of other G7 members.”

There were lingering concerns that the Golden Week string of national holidays in May could trigger an uptick in infections. However, after confirmation that the number of new infections was trending downward, Kishida announced on May 26 that the borders would reopen to tourists.

However, Japan remained the only Group of Seven member that retained an upper limit on the number of daily arrivals from overseas. The government is considering lifting this cap to 30,000 arrivals per day in July. “We’ll make an appropriate decision that takes into account factors including domestic and international needs, quarantine requirements and the degree to which infections are spreading,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said at a press conference Thursday.

Businesses barely hanging on

According to Teikoku Databank, Ltd., the number of bankruptcies or businesses that closed down in the travel and lodgings industries in 2021 was about 30% higher than the figure for 2019, the year before the pandemic erupted. Many small and midsize businesses are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, so these operators have high expectations that the return of tourists will help them survive.

Japan took top spot on the World Economic Forum’s travel and tourism ranking for the first time in a 2021 report. A 36-year-old Thai tourist who participated in a Japan Tourism Agency trial visit before the borders reopened said, “I think many people in Thailand want to visit Japan as soon as they can.”