Japan is open for travel. So why aren’t tourists coming back?

This is particularly impressive in Japan, which reopened with much fanfare in June 2022, just in time for the peak travel season. According to the Japan Immigration Services Agency, from June 10 to July 10, the country received about 1,500 holidaymakers. This is 95% less than in the same period of 2019 before the pandemic.

So what causes the discrepancy? And why are travelers so slow to return to a place that has historically been popular?

No safety in numbers

Although Japan is open again, the country currently only allows holidaymakers to come in organized groups, not individuals. For many in the West, who prefer spontaneity and don’t want to follow a rigid route, this issue has been a problem.

“We don’t need babysitting,” says Melissa Musicer, a New York-based public relations professional who has traveled regularly to Japan.

Musicer and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times.” The couple had planned to visit again in 2022 when they heard the borders were reopening, but were frustrated by the restrictions and decided against it.

Instead, they choose a new direction and go on vacation to South Korea.

“We do not want to impose a quarantine. That was a huge factor,” Musicer says. “We just like to walk, roam, shop and eat expensive sushi.”

The scales have tipped in Seoul’s favor over beach vacations, preferring city trips, and her penchant for K-dramas born out of the pandemic.

Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, Japan was usually surrounded by tourists and street vendors.

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Half open is not open

Japan’s not fully open policy applies not only to visas. The country still has mask rules in many regions, group tours can be expensive, and Japan requires quarantine upon arrival, making it a difficult sell.

Kathy Tam is the co-founder of Arry, a members-only subscription platform that helps visitors to Japan book tables at some of Tokyo’s most sought-after restaurants, such as Obama-approved Sukiyabashi Jiro and Den, which recently topped a list of Asia’s best restaurants.

Before the pandemic, many Arri users were Asian travelers—living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, or Singapore—visiting Japan a few times a year or just popping in for a spontaneous long weekend. However, starting in 2020, the company had to go on hiatus.

“We didn’t know it was going to take this long,” she says of what was supposed to be a short hiatus. “It was definitely difficult.”

The few members who start contacting Arri about bookings, Tam says, are people who have been able to get business visas to Japan. It’s currently the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as individual visitors, and some are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to get seats at restaurants they previously couldn’t book.

However, there is one good news. Despite the challenges, many of Japan’s best eateries have performed well during the pandemic.

“Many of the restaurants we work with have a strong local customer base,” Tam says. On the other hand, this means that these popular places will still be open when foreign tourists can come.

According to the Immigration Services Agency, the two biggest markets for tourism in Japan are now Thailand and South Korea. But “biggest” here is relative – about 400 people from each country have visited Japan since June. Only 150 came from the United States.

Before the pandemic, the narrow streets of Kyoto were crowded with visitors.

Before the pandemic, the narrow streets of Kyoto were crowded with visitors.

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Chinese effect

In 2019, Japan’s largest tourist market was neighboring China, with 9.25 million Chinese visitors.

However, China currently remains virtually cut off from the rest of the world. Strict quarantine protocols are still in place for both citizens and foreigners, which has brought tourism to a standstill.

Japan is not the only country that has been hit hard by the lack of Chinese travelers. Popular destinations for Chinese tourists such as Australia, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea have lost revenue as more than a billion potential travelers stay at home.
Tokyo Skytree is the tallest building in Japan.

Tokyo Skytree is the tallest building in Japan.

Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Reuters

Hiroyuki Ami, Tokyo Skytree’s head of public relations, says the first international tour group arrived at the observation deck by June 27. The group in question included visitors from Hong Kong.

The financial center city has strict restrictions, including a mandatory hotel quarantine for returning residents, but it is still easier for tourists to travel from there than from mainland China.

“Before Covid,” says Ami, “the biggest number (of foreign visitors) was from China, but I haven’t seen them lately.” He confirmed that most visitors to Skytree over the past six weeks were local Japanese during the summer holidays. .

“The fact that the reception of tourists has resumed does not mean that we are getting many customers from abroad,” he adds.

Waiting for its time

It is likely that when and if Japan decides to fully open up to individual holidaymakers, they will want to come. The phrase “revenge trip” has been coined to describe people who saved up their money during Covid and now want to spend it on a big trip, and Japan remains a popular wish-list destination.

“There is a huge interest in returning to Japan,” says Tam, co-founder of Arry. “I think it will go up.”

CNN’s Kathleen Benoza in Tokyo reported.

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