BY JULIAN RYALL
Japan Correspondent

Harvey

TOKYO, Japan — Japanese travel operators are once again marketing Guam and Saipan as holiday destinations, additional flights are being scheduled for the all-important summer months, and firms say they are seeing strong “pent-up demand” for travel.

 The Guam Visitors Bureau has launched a promotional campaign featuring prominent Japanese social media influencers to further promote the destination and a delegation from GVB returned April 26 to the island after a marketing trip.

More than two years after the coronavirus pandemic broke out, laying waste to the global travel industry, the indications emerging from the key Japanese market are all positive. And while there is certainly cause for optimism, one analyst has cautioned that the recovery in inbound Japanese tourism to Guam may not be smooth or swift. 

United Airlines announced in April that it intends to increase weekly flights from Japan to Guam in May, in anticipation of greater interest in resort vacations during the peak travel months. The inbound sector has had a similar boost from Jin Air’s return to Guam on April 16, and reports in South Korea that low-cost carrier Air Busan, an affiliate of Asiana Airlines, is also planning to start flights from Incheon to Guam in May, along with five other destinations in the Asia-Pacific region. 

“We believe there is a huge amount of pent-up demand in Japan, which is obvious given that people have been stuck at home for two-and-a-half years now,” said Abraa Appal, an analyst with the Global Business Unit of domestic travel giant JTB Corp.  

“People have been using the time that they have not been able to travel to make their plans and once the restrictions are fully lifted, then I see demand soaring,” he told the Journal.

In the early stages of the pandemic, Japan imposed a near-total ban on entry or departures from Japan. That has been eased to permit a limited number of domestic travelers to go overseas, foreign and domestic businesspeople to enter and depart the country and some foreign students to take up university and college places. On April 10, the number of people permitted to enter the country on any given day was raised from 7,000 individuals to 10,000 people, although the ban on foreign tourists entering Japan remains in place.

The Japanese government does, however, still require a three-day quarantine period for the majority of arrivals, which is a concern for any Japanese planning a holiday overseas who do not want to endure quarantine, or fear that testing positive for the virus will cause problems with their employers. 

And while the restrictions are being eased, there is also a political component to the issue. Japan is scheduled to have a general election in early July and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is understood to be reluctant to relax the regulations as a sudden surge in the virus would be criticized by the public and hurt its chances at the ballot box. The assumption is that the government will be more open to the idea of permitting freer inbound and outbound travel as soon as the election is concluded. 

“We expect the borders to open soon and the government to be more flexible on the restrictions,” Appal said. “We believe things could be almost back to normal in the summer months and we are ramping up our sales and promotion efforts for Guam because it remains a popular destination for Japanese travellers.”

Okinawa offers Japanese travel without the three-day quarantine.
Photo courtesy of Visit Okinawa Japan

Ryosuke Oochi, a spokesman for travel firm HIS Co., echoed that belief, saying that “many people have contacted us with inquiries about Guam and they want to go on holiday to a beach destination.” 

But while there is optimism among operators, travel sector analyst Ashley Harvey cautions that getting tourists to return to Guam may not be as easy as simply scrapping the health restrictions. 

“Japanese people can go on holiday overseas, but the problem is the process of returning to Japan,” he said. “If they go to a place like Guam, they then have to quarantine for three days, which in some cases is the same amount of time they were in Guam. And they have to take those three days in quarantine as part of their very limited holiday allowance, which many people obviously do not want to do.”

Further complications with an employer will crop up if a member of staff contracts the virus on holiday, he said, while Japan’s two-and-a-half-year of relatively complete isolation has driven interest in domestic destinations, with Okinawa seizing the majority of people who would previously have booked a beach holiday in Guam.

“It makes complete sense to Japanese travelers,” Harvey said. “There are no quarantine regulations coming and going to Okinawa and they do not need a passport — and remember, only 23% of Japanese had a passport before the pandemic.

“Ultimately, Okinawa is a no-hassle destination that has done a lot in the last couple of years to appeal to domestic travelers, with new hotels and experiences,” he said. 

Yet another consideration for anyone booking a vacation, Harvey said, is the sudden and dramatic collapse in the value of the yen against foreign currencies, notably the dollar. The yen is down as much as 30% from the last time that tourists were able to freely visit Guam, making any trip significantly more expensive. 

“Japanese, by their very nature, are not big risk-takers when it comes to travelling and I sense that it is going to take a little while for lots of people to feel brave enough to go overseas, especially when you take into account the rising cost, the availability of Okinawa and general concerns about being taken ill abroad,” Harvey said.  

“I think it will be a real challenge for all resort destinations that have in the past relied on Japanese visitors for a large proportion of their inbound business to win them back,” he said. “They are going to have to work really hard, especially now they are also competing against Okinawa.” mbj