Japan is open for travel.  So why don’t tourists come back?

Japan is open for travel. So why don’t tourists come back?

This is particularly impressive in Japan, which reopened with much fanfare in June 2022, just in time for the peak tourist season. Between June 10 and July 10, the country welcomed about 1,500 leisure tourists, according to data from Japan’s Immigration Services Agency. This is 95% less than the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.

So what causes the discrepancy? And why are travelers so slow to return to what was once a popular destination?

There is no certainty in numbers

Although Japan is accessible again, the country currently only allows tourists to come in organized groups, not as individuals. For many in the West, who prefer spontaneity and do not want to follow a strict itinerary, this question was a problem.

“We don’t need to be looked at,” says Melissa Musicer, a New York-based public relations specialist who has traveled regularly to Japan.

Musicer and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times.” The couple had planned to visit again in 2022 when they heard the borders were reopening, but were frustrated by the restrictions and gave up.

Instead, they choose a new destination and go to South Korea for their vacation.

“We don’t want to quarantine. That was a huge factor,ā€ Musicker says. “We just like to go and wander around and shop and eat expensive sushi.”

A preference for city visits over beach vacations tipped the scales in Seoul’s favor, as did its pandemic-born addiction to K-dramas.

Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, Japan is usually surrounded by tourists and street vendors.

Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, Japan is usually surrounded by tourists and street vendors.

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Half open is not open

Japan’s policy of not being completely open doesn’t just apply to visas. The country still has mask-wearing rules in many areas, group tours can be expensive, and Japan requires quarantine on arrival, making it a tougher sell.

Katie Tam is the co-founder of Arry, a members-only subscription platform that helps diners in Japan earn reservations at some of Tokyo’s most sought-after restaurants, such as the Obama-approved Sukiyabashi Jiro and a recent leader on the Best Restaurants in Asia list Den.

Before the pandemic, many of Ari’s users were Asian travelers ā€” living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore ā€” who visited Japan a few times a year or might just pop in for a spontaneous long weekend. From 2020, however, the company had to go on hiatus.

“We didn’t know it would take this long,” she says of what was supposed to be a short hiatus. “It was definitely hard.”

The few members who are starting to contact Ari again to make reservations, Tam says, are people who have managed to get business visas to Japan. It’s currently the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as solo visitors, and some are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to get seats at restaurants they couldn’t book before.

However, there is good news. Despite the challenges, many of Japan’s top eateries are doing well amid the pandemic.

“Many of the restaurants we work with have a strong local customer base,” says Tam. On the other hand, this means that these popular places will continue to operate when foreign tourists can come.

According to the Immigration Services Agency, the two biggest markets for Japanese tourism are now Thailand and South Korea. But “biggest” here is relative – about 400 people from each country have visited Japan since June. Only 150 came from the United States.

Before the pandemic, Kyoto's narrow streets were packed with visitors.

Before the pandemic, Kyoto’s narrow streets were packed with visitors.

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Chinese effect

In 2019, Japan’s biggest tourist market was neighboring China, with 9.25 million visits from Chinese.

Now, however, China remains essentially isolated from the rest of the world. Strict quarantine protocols are still in place for both citizens and foreigners, causing tourism to come to a standstill.

Japan is not the only country that has taken a significant hit from the lack of Chinese travelers. Popular destinations for Chinese tourists such as Australia, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea lost revenue as more than one billion potential travelers stayed home.
Tokyo Skytree is the tallest structure in Japan.

Tokyo Skytree is the tallest structure in Japan.

Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Reuters

Hiroyuki Ami, Tokyo Skytree’s head of public relations, says it took until June 27 for the first international tour group to arrive at the observation deck. The group in question is made up of guests from Hong Kong.

The financial hub city has strict restrictions, including mandatory hotel quarantine for returning residents, but it is still easier for tourists to travel there than from mainland China.

“Before Covid,” Ami says, “the biggest number (of foreign visitors) was from China, but I haven’t seen them recently.” He confirmed that most of Skytree’s visitors in the past six weeks were local Japanese on their summer vacations. vacations.

“Just because the reception of tourists has resumed does not mean that we are getting many customers from abroad,” he adds.

Waiting for the time

Odds are good that when and if Japan decides to fully reopen to individual leisure tourists, they’ll want to come. The catchphrase ‘revenge trip’ has been coined to describe people who saved their money during Covid and now want to blow it on a big bucket list trip, and Japan remains a popular bucket-list destination.

“There is tremendous interest in returning to Japan,” says Tam, Arry’s co-founder. “I think it will pick up.”

CNN’s Kathleen Benozza in Tokyo contributed reporting.

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