BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO, Japan — While travel agencies and airlines in South Korea draw up plans to resume vacationing in the Marianas Islands, the outlook in Japan is far less optimistic, say operators and analysts.
The South Korean government signed a “travel bubble” agreement with the Northern Mariana Islands on June 30 that allows for tourists who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus exempt from quarantine periods upon entry, though there are conditions. The arrangement is mutual and applies to tourists to Korea from the NMI.
Guam has also lifted quarantine requirements, effective July 4.
Korean airlines have begun announcing flight dates and frequencies and receiving approval for flights to the NMI and Guam.
Unlike Korea, however, Japan is struggling to control the spread of the virus, still has closed borders and has not yet opened discussions on “travel bubbles” with any of its key tourism destinations.
The government’s primary concern at the moment, analysts say, is trying to ensure that the Tokyo Olympic Games — delayed from last year and now due to open on July 23 — go off without further hitches or become a “super-spreader” event for the virus.
“We stopped all trips to Saipan and Guam last year and we see no likelihood of being able to resume them any time soon,” said Takutsu Miura, a spokesman for Tokyo-based HIS.
“The problem for most people is the requirement on the Japan side for anyone entering the country to complete a 14-day quarantine period, even though most of that can be spent at home,” he told the Journal.
“That quarantine period is longer than virtually anyone will go on holiday to Guam or Saipan for and is impossible for people with a full-time job,” he said.
The abrupt severing of tourist links between Guam and the Japanese market has been a shock for locally hired staff, Miura admitted, although the company has tried to help employees in Guam through support for an initiative to set up a Japanese-style restaurant.
The health crisis has similarly played havoc with JTB Corp.’s hopes for a return to normality in the travel sector this summer.
Asked whether there is any possibility of the creation of a travel bubble between Japan and Guam or Saipan this summer, an official of the company said, “We feel that possibility is extremely low.”
Strict quarantine requirements on both sides make it difficult for holidaymakers to plan an overseas trip, said the official, who declined to be named.
“Many of our small and medium-size suppliers in Guam are still closed, but we are holding meetings with some suppliers to discuss plans for after the reopening of business,” the official said. “And in Saipan we are in discussions on how to stimulate demand for tourism by utilizing funds under the America Rescue Plan Act that have been secured by the CNMI government.”
Nevertheless, there are no short-term solutions on the horizon, he said.
“Depending on the rate of vaccinations, we believe it is likely to be next year — possibly spring but maybe summer — before vacation travel to Guam or Saipan can resume,” he said.
Ashley Harvey, general manager of travel marketing agency Aviareps Japan, is similarly not optimistic about a resumption in travel between the two markets in the near future.
“It is going to take longer purely due to the pragmatic differences in vaccination rate,” he said. “I understand that residents of Guam and Saipan are mostly vaccinated already, but that is not the case in Japan.”
At present, while around 1 million doses of the vaccine are being administered a day, only 14.6 million of Japan’s 126 million residents have had two shots, less than 12% of the population.
“I do not think that anything is going to happen in terms of travel bubbles until after the Tokyo Olympics Games,” Harvey said. “The government is completely fixated on that at the moment, and it is desperate to have it go ahead safely.”
Plans for a resumption of outbound tourism and a review of quarantine periods are only likely to be discussed from mid-September, after the Paralympics have concluded. And even then, Japan is more likely to make sources of lucrative, large-scale inbound tourism the priority ahead of outbound destinations.
“I see the Japanese government moving to open up to markets that can deliver a large amount of tourists into Japan, to fill flights and hotels here, instead of prioritizing outbound destinations that will deliver few travelers in return,” he said.
That means Tokyo is likely to initially reach out to China, Taiwan and South Korea for tourists, followed by Australia and the nations of South-East Asia. If those governments can be convinced to relax quarantine and other travel restrictions, then Tokyo will do the same to develop a flow of large numbers of tourists, Harvey said.
“The only other way for the situation to change is for pressure from domestic travel agencies and the general public desperate for a beach holiday to grow to the point that it finally becomes a political issue,” he said. “But I do not see that happening in the near future.” mbj