Japan is open to travel.  So why don’t the tourists come back?

Japan is open to travel. So why don’t the tourists come back?

This is particularly surprising in Japan, which reopened with great fanfare in June 2022, just in time for the peak travel season. Between June 10 and July 10, the country welcomed around 1,500 tourists, according to data from the Japanese Immigration Services Agency. It’s down 95% from the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.

So what’s causing the disparity? And why are travelers so slow to return to what has historically been a popular destination?

No security in numbers

Although Japan is accessible again, the country currently allows leisure tourists to come only in organized groups rather than as individuals. For many in the West, who prefer spontaneity and don’t want to follow a rigorous itinerary, that question was a headache.

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

Musiker and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times”. The couple had planned to return in 2022 when they heard the borders were reopening, but were frustrated by the restrictions and gave up.

Instead, they are opting for a new destination and heading to South Korea for their vacation.

“We don’t want to quarantine. That was a huge factor,” says Musiker. “We just like to hang out, shop and eat expensive sushi.”

The preference for city visits over beach holidays has tipped the scales in Seoul’s favor, as has its addiction to K-dramas, born of the pandemic.

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

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

Kosuke Okahara / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Semi-open is not open

Japan’s not fully open policy doesn’t just apply to visas. The country still has mask rules in many areas, group tours can be expensive, and Japan requires quarantine on arrival, which makes it a more difficult sale.

Katie Tam is the co-founder of Arry, a members-only subscription platform that helps visitors to Japan get reservations at some of Tokyo’s most in-demand restaurants, such as the Obama-approved Sukiyabashi Jiro and the recent Den, including the best asian restaurants.

Before the pandemic, many of Arry’s users were Asian travelers – who lived in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore – who visited Japan several times a year or could just have a spontaneous long weekend. Since 2020, however, the company has been discontinued.

“We didn’t know it would take that long,” he says of what was supposed to be a short-term hiatus. “It was definitely tough.”

The few members who start reaching out to Arry to make reservations, Tam says, are people who have been able to obtain visas for business travel to Japan. Currently, this is the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as lone visitors, and some are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to get seats in restaurants they weren’t able to book before.

There is good news, though. Despite the challenges, many of Japan’s best restaurants are doing well during the pandemic.

“Many of the restaurants we work with have a strong local customer base,” says Tam. On the upside, this means that these popular spots will still be in business whenever foreign tourists can come.

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

Before the pandemic, the narrow streets of Kyoto were full of visitors.

Before the pandemic, the narrow streets of Kyoto were full of visitors.

Kosuke Okahara / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The China effect

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

Now, however, China remains essentially isolated from the rest of the world. It still has strict quarantine protocols in place for both citizens and foreigners, blocking tourism.

Japan isn’t the only country that has taken a significant hit from the lack of Chinese travelers. Popular destinations for Chinese tourists, such as Australia, Thailand, Singapore, and South Korea, have all lost revenue as over a billion potential travelers stay at home.
Tokyo Skytree is Japan's tallest structure.

Tokyo Skytree is Japan’s tallest structure.

Rodrigo Reyes Marin / AFLO / Reuters

Hiroyuki Ami, head of public relations at Tokyo Skytree, says it took until June 27 for the first international tour group to arrive at the observation deck. The group in question was made up of guests from Hong Kong.

The financial hub city has stringent restrictions including mandatory hotel quarantine for returning residents, but it was still easier for tourists to travel from there than from mainland China.

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

“Just because tourist acceptance has picked up doesn’t mean we have received a lot of customers from abroad,” he adds.

Waiting in the wings

Chances are good that when and if Japan decides to fully reopen to individual leisure tourists, they will want to come. The “vengeance trip” slogan was created to describe people who saved their money during Covid and now want to blow it up on a big bucket list trip, and Japan remains a popular bucket list destination. .

“There is tremendous interest in returning to Japan,” says Tam, Arry’s co-founder. “I think it will resume.”

Kathleen Benoza of CNN in Tokyo contributed to the report.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.