Japan’s troubled tourism sector desperate for lack of exit from COVID | Tourism

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When Japan introduced a general ban on incoming tourists in April 2020, Andrew William prepared for several difficult months.

As revenues from his design tour, An Design, plummeted, William moved on to virtual experiences to keep his business afloat.

He could never have imagined that he would still be fighting more than two years later.

“The design relies heavily on active tourism. Before the pandemic, I usually took 20 to 35 walking trips a month. Since March 2020, I have led six hiking trips, “said William William of Al Jazeera, whose company specializes in tours of Japanese gardens and tourist attractions.

“Starting a business here in Japan was a major life goal and I will not give up so easily. That being said, it was extremely difficult and created a huge amount of stress … I don’t know how much longer I can continue like this. “

Andrew William, owner of the Kyoto travel agency An Design, saw a drop in revenue during the pandemic [Courtesy of Andrew Willam]

Japan, which is still largely closed to the world, is an increasingly remote place in the region, which has largely lifted border restrictions and resumed quarantine-free travel.

Although Tokyo has allowed business travelers, foreign students and academics to return since last month, tourists are still banned, putting Japan in a rare society with China and Taiwan. Most arrivals must also undergo a three-day quarantine.

For businesses that depend on tourism, border controls mean that a pandemic recovery has barely had a chance to begin.

Satoko Nagahara, Ludovic Lainé and Melody Sin, co-founders of Deneb, a luxury travel design company based in Japan, said that although the industry was resilient, it would take several years for it to recover.

“We recently surveyed luxury hotels across Japan and asked various questions about the pandemic,” Nagahara, Lainé and Sin told Al Jazeera. “One of the commonly agreed prospects for hoteliers is that it will take about two years for the industry to re-emerge thanks to international visits, pending any significant pandemic-related events.”

Anne Kyle, CEO and founder of Arigato Travel, told Al Jazeera that the last two years have been stressful, even though switching to online tours has allowed her to keep some cash flow going.

“But I’ll be very honest, we have borrowed money,” Kyle said. “We are on the verge of using personal savings to keep the company running.”

Tourist boom

The initial entry ban for tourists in Tokyo came in response to the first wave of COVID-19 infections in early 2020 and at a time when Japanese tourism was booming.

Following the liberalization of visa rules under then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has seen an increase in foreign tourism for eight years in a row, with overseas visitors reaching a peak of 32 million arrivals in 2019.

Around 40 million visitors were expected in 2020, the year in which the Olympic Games were originally scheduled, while the government has set a target of 60 million visitors by 2030. The economic contribution of international visitors has increased by 4 year over year. 81 trillion yen ($ 3.8 billion) spent in 2019 alone.

“In terms of net positive impact on domestic consumption, tourism is not exaggerated,” Jesper Koll, an economist in Tokyo, told Al Jazeera. “In addition, border closures have disproportionately affected regional economies, where the coming boom has had a much more disproportionate positive impact.”

There has been hope in travel circles that borders could reopen after vaccinating most of the population – 80 percent have received at least two shots – the sharp rise in the Omicron variant has receded and border controls in neighboring countries such as South Korea and Malaysia have fallen.

A post on the website of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs earlier this month appears to have signaled the end of the protocols, stating: “The following 106 countries will not be subject to denial of permission to enter Japan from 0:00 (JST) on April 8, 2022.”

However, these hopes soon vanished when the government confirmed that the changes applied only to returning residents and family members with mitigating circumstances, students enrolled in Japanese curricula, and work permit holders, all of whom would be subject to reduced periods of isolation. if they meet the necessary criteria.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks at the speaker's stand.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that no timetable had yet been set for tourists to return to the country. [File: Eugene Hoshiko/Pool via Reuters]

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida confirmed that “no timetable” had been decided for a complete reopening of the border, although members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party were discussing a possible “relaxation of measures at the borders”.

The prospect of reopening Japan is further complicated by the ever-increasing number of COVID-19 cases, as well as the recent discovery of the Omicron XE hybrid variant by a traveler who arrived at Narita Airport from the United States.

In the past, Tokyo has responded to rising infection rates and new options with tighter restrictions, raising concerns that a tourist-friendly border policy may still be remote. In a December poll by Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily newspaper, nearly 90 percent said they were in strict border control.

Some scholars point to parallels between the pandemic years and the Sakoku era, a period of more than 200 years during which Japan cut itself off from the outside world.

But Koll said Japan simply has its own story.

“And it’s not just a cautious story, it’s also a story of a loss of national confidence due to Japan’s inability to develop the vaccine on its own,” Koll said. “This story of over-reliance on global rather than local innovation has suppressed a more effective and rational global communication strategy.

Kumi Kato, a professor of tourism at Wakayama and Musashino Universities, agreed that communication about measures at Japan’s borders was confusing, but said such problems did not concern Japan alone. Kato said the pandemic could be an opportunity for Japan to remedy unsustainable tourism.

“Japan should use the decline in COVID to improve aspects of tourism,” Kato told Al Jazeera. “Japan was not quite ready for a big influx of tourism … I hope that the new policy of focusing on sustainability, but not rushing to increase the inflow, will be effective and will show results when the borders are opened more freely.”

For small business owners like Kyle, who also runs the private Facebook group Japan Foreign Tourism Professionals, the question of when this will actually happen is almost as uncertain as ever.

“A lot of people in the group were very optimistic, but now they’re impatient,” Kyle said. “It’s very difficult to predict.” [when the borders will reopen] because it is not clear what data government officials use. “

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