After more than two years of near total isolation, Japan has reopened its borders to foreign visitors – but the road back to the pre-Covid tourism boom could be long and bumpy.
The country last week lifted some of the toughest pandemic border controls in the world by scrapping a cap of 50,000 daily arrivals, reinstating waivers for short-stay visas and scrapping a rule requiring tourists to travel in the context of group visits.
The reopening could not have happened quickly enough for the world’s third-largest economy, already reeling from the damage inflicted by the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pinned his hopes on spendthrift visitors taking advantage of a weak yen, which recently hit a 32-year low against the dollar, to boost business and resurrect Japan’s reputation as one of the essentials in the world. countries.
In Gion, a working-class district of Kyoto, local shopkeepers greeted the return of tourists with a mixture of optimism and apprehension.
“The last two years have been really difficult,” said Hiroko Inoue, owner of Furouan, a kimono boutique. “There were no foreign visitors and very few Japanese tourists. I guess sales were less than 1% of pre-Covid-19.
“When I heard the government’s announcement about reopening Japan, I was really happy, but it was way too late.”
Just over 500,000 foreign visitors have come to Japan so far this year – a fraction of the record 31.8 million who arrived in 2019 – while the pandemic forced the government to abandon its target of 40 million visitors to Japan. 2020, the year the Tokyo Olympics were postponed. a year ago as the virus raged across the world.
As television reports filmed travelers arriving at airports and thronging working-class areas of Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan is ill-prepared for a sudden influx of visitors.
Kishida wants to attract 5 trillion yen (£30 billion) in spending generated by tourism a year, but the Nomura Research Institute estimates that inbound travel will generate much less than 2.1 trillion yen next year and will not exceed not pre-Covid levels until 2025.
Hotel employment fell 22% between 2019 and 2021, government data shows, and other sectors that depend on tourism say staff shortages and supply chain disruptions are preventing them from coping with a sharp increase in the number of visitors.
About half of the 260 shops and restaurants at Narita, Japan’s largest international airport, remain closed. More than 70% of hotels said they didn’t have enough full-time employees in August, up from around 27% a year earlier, according to market research firm Teikoku Databank.
Tourism Minister Tetsuo Saito called the October 11 reopening a “historic day for the tourism sector.” But industry experts do not expect a return to the pre-pandemic situation Bakucheerful [explosive buying] days until China relaxes its “zero-Covid” policy, which imposes strict restrictions on foreign travel. About a third of foreign visitors to Japan in 2019 were Chinese.
Until then, shops, restaurants and other private tourist yen businesses will depend on travelers from other parts of Asia, Europe and North America.
People like Ekram Faiz, a Malaysian who was visiting Gion with a friend. “I bought my ticket to Japan in 2020, so I’ve been waiting for two years,” said Faiz, a first-time visitor to Japan whose itinerary covered the rugged tourist perennials of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. “I can’t wait to experience Japanese culture and try local cuisine.”
The cafe inside Nishio, which sells traditional Kyoto sweets, has been virtually empty throughout the pandemic, according to a staff member who asked not to be named. “It was really weird,” he said. “But our biggest problem now is finding enough staff to cope with an increase in foreign customers.”
Not everyone in Gion is happy with the prospect of hordes of tourists returning to their doorstep. Multilingual signs ask visitors not to sprawl out on the street in case they block traffic, and to refrain from touching or photographing private property. Others remind them not to approach Maiko and geiko traditional artists for selfies – a major problem before the pandemic.
Travelers to Japan must now show proof that they have received three Covid-19 vaccines or return a negative test result within 72 hours of departure. There are concerns, however, that the end of travel restrictions could lead to friction over another pandemic measure that Japan is reluctant to abandon: mask-wearing.
The government has recommended that face coverings are no longer needed outdoors, but the advice has been largely ignored. Earlier this month, the government approved a change in regulations to allow hoteliers to turn away guests who refuse to comply with mask-wearing and infection control measures during any future Covid-19 outbreaks.
A shop assistant in Gion suggested that tourists without masks would benefit from the doubt. “I would prefer them to wear masks, but if they come here to spend money, it will be inconvenient if we insist on them wearing them,” he said.
This won’t be a problem for Andre Hansmann, a German tourist who had been in Japan for less than a day. While he and two friends were maskless as they explored the back streets of Gion, he said he would abide by local customs when inside. “We don’t mind wearing masks at all… we still wear them in some places in Germany, so that’s not a problem.
Japan has been widely criticized for its decision to impose some of the toughest travel restrictions in the world. ‘Locked out’ international couples have been forced to live apart, exchange students have had to put plans on hold or give up on their dreams of studying in Japan, and some tourists have complained when they saw Japanese citizens visiting freely from countries that had already reopened their borders.
“I don’t think the border closures worked as a measure to prevent Covid-19,” said Hansmann, who eventually traveled to Japan after his initial booking was canceled during the pandemic. “As soon as we heard that Japan was going to reopen, we immediately booked another flight. We were so excited when we woke up in Kyoto this morning.
Inoue is eager to resume selling vintage kimonos at her shop, located in a century-old building on Gion’s main thoroughfare. “Things can only get better, and I look forward to warmly welcoming foreign visitors,” she said. “I just hope they play by the rules.”