After plenty of false starts, Japan is set to fully reopen its borders to tourism next month after more than two years of strict COVID-19 border restrictions. According to local media, the daily new arrival entry cap, which was increased to 50,000 earlier this month, will be removed to make way for the pre-pandemic tourist visa-waiver system originally available to 68 countries.
Under the current COVID-19 border restrictions, foreign tourists need to obtain a short-term visa and prepare their flights, itinerary, accommodation, and car rentals ahead of time through a recognized travel agency. The Japanese government removed mandatory pre-flight COVID-19 tests as long as visitors are triple vaccinated. It has also scrapped the requirement for tourists to enter through a carefully monitored package tour with a licensed Japanese tour guide.
While the current situation is an improvement in terms of allowing independent travel, the continued restrictions on free, spontaneous travel have been criticized by experts as being ineffective in helping the sluggish tourism sector recover to pre-pandemic levels. It may also deter tourists from choosing Japan as their travel destination, perhaps opting to head to Europe, which is currently embracing tourism.
In recent months border restrictions have been relaxed at unprecedented speed. The daily new arrivals entry cap was lifted from 5,000 to 20,000 in June and then more than doubled to 50,000 on September 7. Last week Prime Minister Kishida Fumio said he planned to bring Japan’s COVID-19 restrictions into line with those of other G-7 countries and continuously relax restrictions while monitoring COVID-19 infections. At a press conference, Kishida said, “Our fight against the virus is not easy but we should not be afraid to take into consideration the Omicron variant.” He also explained he wanted tourists to “take advantage of Japan’s weak yen.”
The Japanese government has been under immense pressure from the international community to remove obstacles for travel. It is the only country among the G-7 that still has restrictions on arrivals. However, the government has been reluctant to fully reveal plans to open the border to international tourists. While authorities had confirmed their intention to resume pre-pandemic travel this year, they have been reluctant to give a timeline. Kishida stated that border restrictions will continue to be relaxed “as soon as possible,” leaving local businesses in tourist hotspots on edge and unsure as to whether to prepare for an uptick in customers this fall. The lack of details also makes it difficult for tourists to gauge whether to travel now or come later when restrictions are completely lifted.
Despite the gradual easing of border restrictions, there has not been a rebound in the number of tourists traveling to Japan. In June, less than 300 foreign tourists entered Japan under the controversial package tour requirement. The following month under 8,000 tourists entered Japan.
A local business that rents kimonos to tourists in the typically bustling tourist hot spot of Asakusa said sales had slumped by half compared to 2019. While it welcomed some international visitors two months after borders were open to tourists, no reservations have been made for the remainder of the year. Experts warn that there won’t be a tourism revival unless tourism reopens fully opens up.
Despite suffering from a record-breaking seventh wave of COVID-19 infections this summer, Japan has shifted its focus to economic recovery and “living with COVID-19.” The central government is focusing on preventing coronavirus-related deaths rather than the spread of infections. As part of that change, they are mulling lifting mandatory reporting of every COVID-19 infection in hospitals to ease the administrative burdens on frontline doctors and allow them to spend more time with patients.
Currently, doctors are legally obligated to report all COVID-19 positive tests to public health centers. Up until last year, this was a handwritten process that needed to be faxed, but it has since been switched to an online process. The central government is now considering limiting mandatory reporting to only serious cases and people in high-risk categories who test positive. Kishida said that “the priority will be on protecting the most vulnerable in society, such as the elderly.”
The government is also considering giving each municipality the option to stop reporting all COVID-19 cases. The shift in policy will put the country in uncharted waters as the national infection tally will no longer be representative of the number of people who officially test positive for COVID-19. The government is aiming to change public perceptions of the coronavirus and is on course to downgrade COVID-19 to a level similar to the seasonal flu.