BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO, Japan — No firm date can be put on Japanese tourists resuming overseas vacations, but domestic agencies are confident that the Mariana Islands will be popular destinations for a number of reasons just as soon as the coronavirus crisis has sufficiently abated that international travel once again becomes possible.
Guam was due to reopen for tourism on July 1, followed on July 15 by the Northern Mariana Islands.
Guam has now walked that back after an increase in COVID cases and extended its health emergency to the end of July, but according to John Quinata, incoming executive manager of the A.B. Won Pat Airport, Guam the island may open mid-July.
At the airport’s board meeting on June 26, Quinata told board members, “Right now [the governor’s] looking at another two weeks.”
The other factor will be which airlines commit to flights.
But July dates will come too early for travelers from Japan, which has imposed a strict two-week self-isolation period for anyone returning from an overseas trip, although there are hopes that Tokyo will ease restrictions in the latter part of the summer.
“It’s clear that Guam has done a very good job of controlling the coronavirus; Japanese travelers are aware of that and tourism authorities there have used the shutdown to ensure that when the tourists come back, there is plenty for them to do,” said Ashley Harvey, general manager of Aviareps Japan.
“Japanese travelers will be fine about going to Guam because it’s a well-known product, a popular international destination and an easy distance from Japan just as soon as everything is in place to make sure that it is all safe,” he told The Marianas Business Journal.
“Guam has a very similar infection rate to Japan – both have been low – so there is no higher risk of catching the virus in Guam than in Tokyo or Yokohama, so I do not believe there is any reason to force travelers to self-isolate for two weeks after returning to Japan,” he added.
Hiroshi Sawabe, executive director of the Office of International Tourism at the Japan Association of Travel Agents, is also upbeat about the outlook – although slightly more guarded.
“We have to advance the process of the recovery of the travel sector step by step and it is expected to be more like two steps forward and one step backward,” he said. “After restoring confidence through domestic travel, people will then feel more comfortable about travelling abroad. But realistically, the recovery in Japan’s overseas travel market will not happen until the fall or the early winter months.”
But he agrees that Guam and Saipan will very quickly be popular destinations.
“People will choose beach destinations because they are seen as safer choices,” he said, adding that some of the first travelers are likely to be younger people who have not been so badly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, are bored by not being able to travel and want to have a holiday.
Satoru Murata, president of the Japan Guam Travel Association and the representative of Holiday Tours Micronesia (Guam) Inc., agrees that tourists are likely to opt for beach destinations over city breaks for the foreseeable future simply because it is easier to find space on a beach than in a metropolis and the possibility of infection is significantly reduced.
The Mariana Islands are also far closer to Japan than Hawaii, another favorite holiday spot for Japanese, and have reported far fewer infections.
“In addition, Guam and Saipan have short travel times from Japan so there is a lower risk of infection during the journey,” he said, although he was more pessimistic on the state of the industry and warned that it may take as long as a year for tourists to return in large numbers because many may opt to stay home until a vaccine is available.
JATA has been lobbying the Japanese government to lift restrictions on international travel, said Shoji Komoda, deputy general manager of the America sub-committee of the association’s Japan Outbound Tourism Council. And while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is “not easily influenced by the private sector, it is important that we as an industry continue to lobby the government to relax restrictions on overseas travel,” he said.
One suggestion that has been put forward is a “travel corridor” that would link Japan and Guam and permit seamless and safe travel, although a spokesperson for the government’s Japan Tourism Agency declined to comment on the proposal.
JATA officials said they are not aware of progress on such a scheme, but Aviareps’ Harvey says it would be an important first step to getting the industry up and running again.
“Tourism is very important to Japan as well and if the authorities want people to start coming here again then Japan is going to need to set up some sort of reciprocal agreement with other destinations,” he said. “It is simply too restrictive to be required to self-isolate for two weeks after a four-day vacation in Guam, for example. Other countries are setting up ‘travel bridges’ or ‘corridors’ and Japan needs to do the same if it wants to help its own travel sector.”
Harvey says Japan’s outbound travel agents are busy drawing up plans to promote overseas destinations that are relatively close and accessible to Japan, have a good reputation for an excellent product, have low levels of the coronavirus and can offer “a bit of tropical paradise.” And Guam, he emphasized “ticks all those boxes.”
JATA member companies are drawing up plans, Sawabe confirmed, with a first step expected to be a major digital travel campaign later in the summer.
And Priscilla Iakopo, managing director of the Marianas Visitors Authority, says the islands will be ready to welcome visitors just as soon as conditions permit.
“For many months, people have not had the chance to freely conduct their daily lifestyle routines due to Covid-19, thus, I think everyone is looking forward to the day when we can continue to socialize and live our lives as we once did,” she said.
The agency’s “Catch a Glimpse Now, Explore Later” campaign has provided virtual experiences to remind potential visitors of the islands’ most attractive sights, the friendly people, the rich culture and the tranquility.
“Covid-19 has significantly impacted travel industries around the world,” Iakopo said. “However, the CNMI remains resilient and we look forward to the return of visitors to explore our safe, clean and beautiful islands. “We want our visitors to have the utmost confidence that our beautiful islands and warm and friendly people are still here and ready to welcome them.” – Maureen N. Maratita contributed to this story. mbj