BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO — Optimism is seeping back into Japan’s outbound travel sector as the government acts to relax border restrictions imposed more than two years ago in an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
From June 1, the revised regulations permit 20,000 people to enter the country, double the previous figure, with overseas tourists allowed to enter Japan from June 10.
The daily cap on arrivals is critical to Japan’s outbound travel industry as it has served to limit the number of Japanese who were able to take an overseas vacation, say travel operators, who were already struggling for clients in a nation known for being deeply averse to risk.
“Some Japanese have already started to travel abroad already, but the numbers have been very low because of that daily cap on people coming into Japan,” said Shoji Komoda, deputy general manager of the Outbound Promotion Division of the Japan Association of Travel Agents or JATA.
“As an industry, we are happy that the rules are being relaxed, but there is still criticism of the 20,000 people per day figure,” he told the Journal. “We believe the government needs to lift that limit very quickly because it is too low.”
In 2019, the last full year before the pandemic broke, more than 20 million Japanese travelled abroad, according to the Japan National Travel Organization, an increase of 5.9% on the previous year and the first time the number had broken that barrier. Confidence that outbound travel would continue the same upward trajectory was dashed by the global spread of the virus and few Japanese have travelled overseas for the last two years, preferring instead to vacation at home.
Now, however, the industry is reporting a sharp increase in demand as people who have not been able to travel overseas once more dig out their passports.
JATA sent missions to both Hawaii and South Korea earlier this year to coordinate with local partners and stakeholders and to identify ways to stimulate travel once more. Easing the entry restrictions is a very positive first step, the industry agrees, while falling infection numbers are further boosting hopes that travel will return to normality soon.
There were 12,057 new cases of the virus reported among Japan’s 125.8 million people on May 30, down dramatically from a peak of 104,345 cases on Feb. 3.
“It is a long-awaited decision and we very much expect the flow of people to recover,” said Kaori Mori, a spokeswoman for domestic travel giant JTB Corp.
Interest is strongest for Hawaii, she said, in part because some travelers have already been able to visit a destination that has long been top of Japanese tourists’ to-do lists, although Mori added that, “Inquiries about other destinations are also increasing and we are getting more questions about the measure that travelers need to meet for Covid-19 screening.”
Yet JTB does not expect demand for international travel to bounce back immediately, she admitted.
“We consider the phased relaxation of the rules will still actually take some time, but we are striving to be ready to respond in a timely manner.”
Airlines are already moving to ramp up their services between Japan and Guam, with United Airlines announcing in late May that it is reintroducing its flights from Guam from July 1 to meet demand through the summer months. The airline will operate three flights a week on the route, while three more weekly flights are being added between Tokyo’s Narita Airport and Guam, bringing the total to 14 a week.
In a statement, Samuel V. Shinohara, managing director of United’s airport operations for the Asia-Pacific region, said, “We have consistently served the Tokyo market and we are very excited to reintroduce our Osaka flights.
“Osaka is the second-largest outbound market in Japan for Guam and we have been working hard to reinstate service to more cities in Japan,” he said. “We will offer three flights a week to Osaka to start and will increase frequency as demand recovers.”
Japan Airlines is also resuming its links with Guam, with its web site offering flights from Narita from Aug. 4. The Japanese flag carrier also expects to operate flights in September, although the details of those services have not yet been confirmed. The airline had already confirmed that it is adding flights on its routes to Hawaii.
“I would say that we are seeing clear signs of increasing demand, both at Zipair and at JAL,” said Mark Morimoto, spokesman for Zipair, the regional low-cost carrier operated by Japan Airlines. “But this is typically a busy time of the year for bookings as people make plans for their vacations in July and August,” he said.
“Having said that, we were already seeing increased demand for a number of destinations, such as Hawaii and Los Angeles, during the Golden Week holidays,” he said. “I think there is a lot of pent-up demand for overseas holidays and we are going to see that increase further.
“We’re not back at the 2019 level yet, but I see a lot of bookings over the coming months.
“Assistance to the airline industry has taken the form of landing fees being waived by the government and taxes being reduced, although those have begun to be phased out and there is less assistance available now,” Morimoto said. “But if the regulations on the borders continue to be eased and bookings are still rising, then the outlook is pretty good.
“A lot of Japanese travelers have saved up a lot of money over the last two-and-a-half years and they really want to travel,” he emphasized. “And I think that’s the same for people in other countries, so we are hoping that at least some of them now want to come to Japan.
“It has been very difficult for companies in the travel sector since early 2000, and it has been difficult for the government as well. But I also think we are seeing changes in people’s purchasing behavior; people are willing to pay more for the things they really want. So once borders are open, they will travel.”
There is optimism that other Japanese airlines might also see the attraction of flying to Guam, said JATA’s Komoda.
“Guam is a very important destination for the Japanese outbound travel industry and we have been very pleased to hear that JAL is resuming direct flights from this summer,” he said. “We also believe that there is potential for more Japanese travelers, although it is unfortunate that there are still no direct flights between Japan and Saipan.
“We are hoping that we might be able to convince Skymark Airlines to consider operating on those routes,” he said.
With hubs at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and Kobe, which also serves the greater Osaka region, Skymark presently only serves domestic destinations, but it did operate scheduled flights to Saipan in 2019. mbj