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Visitors at Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine in Kyoto. Domestic travel is booming in Japan as more people learn to live with Covid-19. Photo: Getty Images

Japanese flock to restaurants and country’s holiday hotspots as they learn to live with rising Covid-19 infections

  • Domestic travel is booming in Japan as people enjoy a restriction-free summer, flocking to tourism hotspots and snapping up hard-to-get restaurant reservations
  • The spread of Covid variants does not seem to be dampening enthusiasm – a sign that one of the countries most cautious about reopening is ready to move on
Asia travel

Japanese people are flocking to the country’s holiday hotspots and snapping up normally hard-to-get restaurant reservations even as Covid-19 infections surge to a record. It is a sign that one of the slowest major economies to fully reopen is adjusting to life with the virus.

Domestic travel is booming as people enjoy their first restriction-free summer since 2019, and as border rules keep away the foreign visitors that typically crowd popular attractions.

Most residents are shaking off concerns about the current wave of virus cases, with travel agencies HIS and JTB reporting no obvious rise in cancellations. Nippon Travel Agency says any spots that become available are quickly booked.

The spread of highly contagious virus variants does not seem to be dampening enthusiasm so far, even with the seven-day rolling average in new infections reaching 1,628 per million people, the highest among the Group of 7 most developed nations.

The 88 Temple Pilgrimage in Shikoku. Tourism hotspots like this one are still devoid of many foreign visitors. Photo: Shutterstock
Japan’s hospital beds are slowly filling up, reaching 48 per cent occupancy as of July 27, according to data compiled by broadcaster NHK. The death rate is just 0.87 per million people, the lowest in the G7, however.

The zest for domestic travel suggests that the world’s third-largest economy, one of the most cautious countries in reopening and with border curbs that are only eclipsed by mainland China’s rules, is increasingly ready to move on.

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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has ruled out reimposing nationwide curbs, and has said that his government may look to downgrade the status of Covid to endemic after the current wave of infections, which would allow Covid-19 patients to be treated at general clinics and remove the requirement for closely tracking case numbers.

Before the pandemic, Japan was at the peak of a tourism boom, welcoming almost 32 million visitors in 2019, who spent 4.8 trillion yen (US$37 billion). But the arrival of Covid spurred a two-year border closure that effectively sealed off the country.

It has only recently been eased, albeit with a cap on daily international arrivals of just 20,000 and other restrictions that leave the industry a long way from a full recovery.

A visitor admires a turtle at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in the Ocean Expo Park in Okinawa, Japan. Photo: Getty Images

That has devastated businesses that rely on overseas visitors, but it has paved the way for a revival in domestic tourism. Local travel plans for July and August were 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, according to a HIS survey published in June.

Tables at popular high-end restaurants have become easier to book as there is no competition with foreign tourists, said Yuki Wakasaki, an official at online restaurant booking site Omakase.

Rental car operators cannot keep up with demand over summer after reducing their inventory to cut costs and as supply chain disruptions roil carmaking, according to Japan’s industry group.

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Still, a continued case spike may spook local authorities and high-risk groups, like the elderly. Osaka has urged older people to refrain from going out unless necessary and Okinawa has imposed social-distancing measures.

Nippon Travel warned the pace of bookings could slow if people become more cautious, while Japan Airlines said people are likely to change plans only if restrictions come into effect.

“If the number of new cases continues to beat records, demand for travel and consumption will likely fall despite the absence of restrictions,” said Takuto Yasuda, an economist at NLI Research Institute.

Miyakojima island in Okinawa prefecture, Japan. Most Japanese are still pushing ahead with their domestic travel plans despite a spike in Covid-19 cases in the country. Photo: Shutterstock

Most Japanese are still pushing ahead with their domestic travel plans, bolstering the case for a pivot to living with the virus that would bring the country in line with much of the rest of the world.

Residents have been highly compliant with social distancing rules throughout the pandemic, with near-universal mask-wearing, high vaccination levels and limited social activity. That has helped to keep Japan’s death rate low without the government ever officially imposing lockdowns.

After more than two years of pandemic discipline, many are ready for normal life again.

In post-Covid Japan, life is a celebration again. Why not Hong Kong, too?

Mitsuru Matsushita took part in his first group trip in three years in June. The president of Shizuoka-based staffing company Flair, on the south coast of Japan, organised a three-day retreat for his 20 employees on the southern island of Shikoku, where they visited attractions, stayed in a hotel, went to bars and restaurants and enjoyed karaoke.


“I’m so glad we did it,” said Matsushita, who explained that a shift to remote work meant employees had lost their sense of belonging.

“Everyone was happy.”