Japan reopens, but strict covid rules keep tourists at bay

TOKYO — Japan is closing in on a full reopening, with an announcement likely in the coming days. But the country’s prolonged shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a lasting blow to its reputation as a destination for international investors, scholars and tourists, experts say.

Japan is strictly limiting foreign arrivals over covid-19 concerns, a scientifically specious approach that has made the country an exception among major economies and most Asia-Pacific neighbors that have reopened to tourists.

Xenophobia has spread as policymakers and media coverage have linked foreigners to the spread of the virus. Investors, academics and international students have diverted their plans elsewhere. Even after Japan recently started accepting group tours, intense surveillance and bureaucratic hurdles have largely kept tourist interest at bay.

Now Japan faces a lack of credibility as it seeks to reach out to the world. Figures in business, academia, policy-making and diplomacy fear the shutdown has tarnished Japan’s image as a culture that values ​​hospitality. Even with a full reopening, Japan would need concrete steps to restore its status, these people said.

Japan launches covid test for travelers but faces battle to revive tourism

“In 2022, the extremes between G-7 countries and even its own neighbors … have really exacerbated this perception gap,” said Joshua W. Walker, president and CEO of the New York-based Japan Society, which works to promote the United States. -Relations with Japan. “There are so many other countries that have understood this, whether it’s Britain, Singapore, even Taiwan or Korea, which have more or less operated in a more normal way… and Japan is now taking steps baby.”

Walker is part of a chorus of professionals who have become frustrated with the country’s apparent disregard for the perception issues caused by its isolation. They fear that without a robust effort to market Japan as open to foreigners, interest from abroad will not be keen and concerns will persist about the domestic impact.

Opinion polls over the past year have shown broad support for closing borders, which analysts say has made it politically difficult for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to fully reopen ahead of July’s elections. A Nikkei poll taken in late June found 49% in favor of lifting the daily visitor cap and 44% opposed.

“I really believe Japan can recover if they put their mind to it. But I’m not convinced they’re fully there yet,” Walker said.

The concerns come as Japan grapples with a slow recovery from the pandemic and a depreciation of the yen, which recently hit a 24-year low against the dollar. Business leaders argued that a full resumption of inbound travel would reinvigorate the economy and many tourists would be eager to take advantage of the weak currency.

But the country’s approach has fueled a perception of Japan as “too cumbersome and too strenuous” a place to visit, the Japan Association of Business Executives said this week.

“Japan has disappointed many people who love Japan and have the potential to love Japan,” said Takakazu Yamagishi, a professor of political science and health policy at Nanzan University in Nagoya. “The border closure has not only upset many tourists who intended to visit Japan, but it will also make them more cautious about Japan, at least for the next few years.”

How to navigate Japan’s mandatory tours, travel restrictions, and coronavirus protocols

After enacting some of the toughest pandemic restrictions, Japan began to gradually reopen to some foreigners this spring, with complex requirements. Foreign tourists can only book trips through a licensed travel agency and must have travel medical insurance that covers covid-19. Until last week, tourists had to be supervised by a guide. Visitors must wear masks unless they are six feet from another person and not talking.

In June, when group tours resumed, only 252 tourists entered, according to Japan’s National Tourism Organization. In July, the number rose to around 7,900.

But that’s a far cry from pre-pandemic levels: In 2019, Japan welcomed a record 32 million foreign tourists and aimed to reach 40 million in 2020. Before covid, 80% of international visitors were people who were not part of group tours, according to the Japan Business Federation.

Tokyo is now considering a full reopening which could take place as early as October, according to Nikkei Asia. The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that the country would relax borders to comply with Group of Seven standards, “taking into account the infection situation and needs at home and abroad, as well as control measures at the borders of other countries”.

The shutdown has created cascading effects on academia that will last for years, said Tomoyuki Sasaki, associate professor of Japanese studies at William & Mary in Virginia, who conducted a survey of hundreds of scholars and students. in Japanese studies in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Students dropped out of Japanese studies programs and researchers lost funding because they could not meet grant requirements to conduct research in the country, threatening the closure of Japanese studies departments in some schools, according to the results of the survey. A professor from a leading university responded in the survey that he now recommends students not to study Japan as their sole focus due to travel barriers.

The number of international students studying in Japan fell by about a quarter between 2019 and 2021, according to Japan’s Ministry of Education.

“It took a long time for the predecessors to build this area. But now it’s really falling apart because of this Japanese government’s very strict border restrictions,” Sasaki said.

Tom Cruise in Japan? OK. Ordinary tourists in Japan? Not good.

Business leaders are pushing for a full reopening, warning of the loss of potential investments.

“Japan really has a golden opportunity to increase foreign investment in the country, a goal the government has set itself for most of the past 20 years,” said Chris LaFleur, president of the American Chamber of Commerce. in Japan. “The relative weakness of the yen right now, in principle, presents an incredible opportunity for those who might be interested in investing in Japan to seriously consider it.”

But national challenges stand in the way. Yamagishi said the government’s justifications for its border policies have fueled public anxiety, stoking fears without providing facts – such as the low percentage of people testing positive at airports.

From restaurateurs to museum operators, many people fear that foreigners are flouting Japanese social expectations of mask-wearing and social distancing, leading to an increase in coronavirus cases.

“In foreign news, I often see images of foreigners not wearing masks,” a Minato City resident in Tokyo recently remarked in the neighborhood’s online public comment section.

“I would like you to think about how to treat foreign tourists by drawing attention to them in English, Chinese, Korean and other languages,” the person wrote. “I would also like you to protect the safety of the lives of the people of Minato City.”

Comments are closed.