BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO — The hiking trails in Japan’s mountains have been busier than ever this summer, as have beaches, onsen [hot springs inns and resorts] and national parks as people who would have usually travelled overseas for their vacations sought out socially distanced vacations closer to home.
And during the four-day weekend in mid-September that is known as “Silver Week,” Japanese let their guard down even more, with theme parks, shopping malls and nightlife districts all reporting increasing numbers of visitors.
The Japanese government and the public are aware that the nation is by no means free of the virus, but after numbers fell in September, the government announced that it was planning to reopen its borders to a maximum of 1,000 foreign arrivals a day from early October. The restrictions are being eased for businesspeople, students attending Japanese universities and long-term foreign residents of Japan.
Anyone arriving from overseas will still need to undergo polymerase chain reaction or PCR testing for the coronavirus at their point of entry into Japan and self-isolate for 14 days.
The bad news, however, is that Tokyo has not opted to open to foreign tourists as the mandatory two-week isolation period makes the resumption of cross-border tourism effectively impossible.
Mark Morimoto, a spokesman for Japan Airlines, said the national flag carrier is operating on just 14% of its international network and that it is carrying just 2% of the international travelers that flew with the airline last year.
Domestically, however, the situation is significantly brighter, he said, with load factors in mid-September between 60% and 70% and the company operating on around 60% of its domestic network.
“It is definitely getting better in terms of domestic passengers and the recovery appears to have started,” he said.
The authorities’ decision to crack open the border from October has been welcomed by the travel industry and there are hopes that, if the early stages are deemed to be a success, that the number of daily entries can be ramped up from 1,000 fairly swiftly.
Ashley Harvey, general manager of destination management firm Aviareps Japan, said the government is determined to push ahead with hosting the Olympic Games next summer —and still has hopes that at least some seats in the brand-new stadiums can be filled.
“This is all leading up to the Olympics going ahead, even if they have to do it with a sharply reduced number of spectators in the venues,” he said.
“Even if people cannot get into these places in large numbers, the television cameras will still be there and the advertisers will still get their coverage, while Japan will look at the entire occasion as an opportunity to showcase the country to billions of viewers around the world and to get the message across that if even if they could not get to Japan this year, then they should make plans to visit in 2022,” he added.
The International Olympic Committee has again reiterated that it is committed to going ahead with the Games next July, as well as the Paralympic Games, and the Japanese government has indicated that it is willing to bend rules on quarantines for athletes.
Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor of infection control at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, says the government’s policy of gradually opening up to foreign arrivals is “the most appropriate course of action,” but she has reservations about opening up too fast given that the PCR are only approximately 70% accurate.
“I still believe we need to have the two-week quarantine period in place, but that is going to make it difficult to re-open to tourists soon,” she said, adding that the same requirement is also stopping Japanese tourists from travelling abroad.
“It is clear that the government wants to start opening up because of the Olympics, but it’s a very difficult decision to make because of the timing,” she said.
“It worries me that the IOC says it is OK to go ahead with the Games even without a vaccine because even that will not prevent people getting infected,” Tsukamoto added. “We still have to take all the precautions available because we do not have a cure.”
However, further moves to open the Japan economy are afoot, as well as discussions to offer its citizens more freedom and normality through travel.
Movie theaters in Japan are now allowed to open at full capacity.
Japanese tourists eager to travel could consider an island destination outside of the country.
The U.S. state of Hawaii opened for U.S. tourists as of mid- October — to now include visitors from Guam — and will not quarantine on arrival visitors who travel with test results through a pre-testing program. Hawaii is eager to grow the Japanese visitor market again through the same plan, with the same offer to Japanese travelers now planned for early November. How soon the Mariana Islands will offer travel to Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands still remains to be seen. mbj