Covid stole foreign tourists from Kyoto – now not sure he wants them back | Japan

youUntil a few years ago, negotiating the hill leading to one of Kyoto’s most popular temples would have tested the patience of a Buddhist saint. The arrival of another bus full of tourists would send pedestrians fleeing down narrow paths already crowded with winding visitors on their way to Kiyomizu-dera.

It was before Covid-19. Today, the cacophony of English and Chinese, and a handful of other European and Asian languages, has been replaced by the chatter of Japanese children on school excursions. Shops selling souvenirs and wagashi sweets are nearly empty, their idle staff perhaps remembering more lucrative times.

Schoolchildren on an excursion to Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

Two years into the pandemic, some residents of the former capital admit they have learned to live without foreign visitors, who were once welcomed for the money they pumped into the local economy and resented for their fake no cultural and, in some cases, stunningly bad manners.

The global boom in Japanese pop culture and cuisine, a weaker yen, and fading memories of the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima have made the country a tourism success story. In 2019, a record number of 31 million people came from abroad – about 8 million of them included Kyoto in their itinerary.

Building on its successful bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, the government has set an ambitious target – to which it continues to cling – of 60 million overseas visitors by the end of this decade.

But after two years of the toughest border restrictions in the world, Japan’s tourism boom seems to belong to another era.

The entrance to Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto
The entrance to Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

Last year, the gains of the previous decade were wiped out, first by the arrival of the coronavirus, then by new waves which forced the government to abandon plans for a gradual opening to tourists and other people from overseas. According to the tourism agency, only 245,900 foreign visitors arrived in Japan in 2021, a 99.2 percent drop from pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s very different now,” said the owner of an ice cream shop near Kiyomizu Temple. “Before, there were a lot of foreign tourists, but now it’s almost empty.”

Despite the loss of income, Kyoto residents are divided over whether a significant number of foreign visitors will return.

Not so long ago, the city was at the center of a backlash against “tourist pollution”. Signs have been erected in the Gion district warning visitors against trespassing and – a common complaint – harassing geiko and maiko performers who pass by for selfies as they go to their evening teahouse appointments .

Traffic jammed popular tourist sites, while locals struggled to find space on buses packed with tourists and their luggage. Restaurant owners have railed against tourists who made group reservations but failed to show up.

For now, Kyoto’s tourism economy depends on domestic visitors, whose presence comes and goes in step with measures to contain the latest wave of coronavirus infections.

Mari Samejima is among the local businessmen eagerly awaiting the return of the bakugai – explosive purchases – sparked by spendthrift parties from Chinese tourists who descended on Kyoto before the pandemic.

“They spent a lot of money here,” said Samejima, who runs a gift shop. “I understand why some people are reluctant to return at this time – and I have my own doubts – but I would prefer to see foreign tourists again.”

The number of customers at Yoshinobu Yoshida’s shop, which sells Kyo sensu folding fans, has dropped 60% over the past two years. “I don’t know what we’ll do if it continues like this,” said Yoshida, whose shop has been in the same location near Kiyomizu for a century. “If I’m being honest, I can’t see him getting back to normal for a few years.”

With Omicron’s rise to prominence yet to peak and the Japanese government showing little enthusiasm for lifting its travel ban, few expect foreign tourists to return to Kyoto soon. . And when they do, the numbers are expected to be a fraction of those before the pandemic.

That might not be a bad thing, according to Tomoko Nagatsuka, who recalls hearing more Chinese than Japanese spoken at her cafe, where weary tourists replenish themselves with green tea and traditional sweets.

“Kyoto is not a particularly big city, so too many foreign tourists are putting pressure on things like public transport,” she said. “They were great for business, but it was hard to lead a normal life with so many of them. Part of me really wants them back, but another part of me loves the peace and quiet.

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