BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO —Japan permitted its latest state-of-emergency to expire at midnight on Sept. 30, permitting the public to travel more freely and bars, restaurants and nightlife venues to extend their opening hours and begin to return to normality.
In parallel, the Japanese government is relaxing its quarantine restrictions on anyone arriving from overseas – although the travel industry admits it will “take time” before inbound tourism recovers fully.
In response to falling domestic infection rates, the Japanese government announced on Sept. 27 it would reduce the quarantine period for anyone entering the country with a coronavirus vaccination certificate from 14 days to 10 days. Only travelers inoculated with Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccines are eligible and a “vaccine passport” either issued by Japan or recognized by Japan is required.
The new regulations go into effect Oct. 1 and no longer require new arrivals to quarantine for the first three days after their arrival in a government-approved hotel and be negative in daily coronavirus tests. Under the previous rules, new arrivals were then permitted to return to their own homes and remain isolated for a further 11 days, with immigration officials able to check on their whereabouts through a mobile phone app.
Travelers from nine countries that still have elevated rates of infection — Argentina, Costa Rica, Colombia, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, the Philippines, Brazil, Venezuela and Peru — are now required to remain in designated hotels for six days and then self-isolate at their homes until 14 days from their arrival have passed.
Japan reported 1,986 new coronavirus cases on Sept. 29, below the 2,000-case threshold for a third consecutive day and significantly lower than the more than 26,000 new cases that were being reported daily as recently as the peak of the fifth wave of the illness in August.
Figures have been brought under control thanks in large part to the roll-out of the vaccine — more than 80%t of the population have now had a first dose and more than 64% of the public is fully vaccinated. Health authorities are now making plans to deliver booster shots to the elderly and others considered to be most at risk of contracting the virus.
For the tourism industry, the hope is that a sixth wave does not materialize or, if it does, that it is far smaller and briefer than previous spikes. If that is the case, then Japan might be able to reopen to international tourists late this year or in the early part of 2022.
The Japan National Tourism Organization is confident it will be able to swiftly win back the millions of travelers who have not been able to visit the country as a result of the pandemic and is convinced, along with the broader tourist industry, that the target of 60 million annual visitors by 2030 set by the national government before the health crisis can still be achieved.
“Our target audience is the world and when Japan is able to open up to the rest of the world, then I hope potential travelers will want to come to Japan,” said Kyoji Kuramochi, who was earlier this year appointed executive vice president of the JNTO.
“The government set a strategy in 2016 of 40 million arrivals in 2020 and 60 million in 2030 and that has not changed,” he said. “I believe we can achieve that number if we make the effort.”
It is an ambitious number given the plummeting figures for inbound tourists. A mere 25,900 foreigners arrived in Japan in August, down 99 per cent from the same month in 2019, before the pandemic. And that figure was triple the number from 2020 as it was dramatically boosted by arrivals for the Paralympics.
Of the total, around 3,000 were from the United States, 2,400 arrived from China and some 1,800 came from France.
“In the five or six years before the pandemic, we saw a very sharp increase in the number of inbound visitors, but that stopped because of the health crisis, so we used that time to take stock of the direction that we should take now,” he said. “We now want to make sure that tourists are able to go to local areas around the country and discover their beauty.”
Another key element of the message is the measures that hotels, restaurants and other locations that cater to foreign tourists are taking to ensure that their visit is safe and goes off without any hitches, he added.
The travel industry is largely in step with the JNTO’s efforts, according to Hiroshi Sawabe, who acts as an adviser to the Japan Association of Travel Agents, and sees China, South Korea, Taiwan and the nations of south-east Asia as the most immediate source of inbound tourists as soon as the borders are once again open.
“These markets accounted for more than 75% of the total inbound Japan travel before the pandemic and I believe it will be relatively easy to let nearby countries know about the recovery in the Japanese tourism sector, especially from the viewpoints of health and hygiene,” he said.
The last 18 months have underlined to the industry the importance of collaboration and coordination at a time of crisis, he said, as well as the growing need for partnerships, firm government support and the message that health and hygiene are the “new normal.”
Some sectors are more reserved in their outlook, however, with Naoya Kaminaga, a spokesman for Japan Airlines’ LCC subsidiary ZIPAIR, insisting that a recovery is going to take time.
“We are completely dependent on the government for a decision on the full reopening of the borders and the wider acceptance and issuance of vaccine passports,” he told the Journal.
“It is positive that the government has reduced the quarantine requirements and we see that as a step in the right direction for the industry, but it will take time for air travel to return to what it was,” he said. “We are seeing a recovery in the domestic air travel market, but we cannot put a date on when that recovery might happen for international air travel.” mbj