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A Kyoto street crowded with tourists after Japan reopened in October. Many hotels and transport companies are finding themselves ill-equipped to deal with demand. Photo: Kyodo

Japan struggles to cope with tourism rebound as hotels, airports, bus and taxi firms face staff shortages

  • Tourists have flocked to Japan since it opened to vaccinated travellers in October, but Covid downsizing left the transport and hospitality sectors understaffed
  • Airlines are recalling workers. A taxi firm is funding degrees to lure drivers. As flights to Tokyo increase, there’s no choice but to ‘work hard and persevere’
Asia travel

Japan’s transport and hospitality industries are struggling to find enough staff to keep up with a rebound in demand, with the number of visitors more than doubling after borders reopened a month ago.

The number of people working at hotels and inns is 30 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, according to the Japan Accommodation and Lodging Foundation, while airlines and tour bus operators report full bookings.

Japan’s struggles mirror what the United States and Europe saw over the summer, when a rebound in travellers overwhelmed airports and travel businesses that had cut back on staffing. Although Japan didn’t go into full lockdown, the job market was already tight and people found other readily available work.

Now, with the borders fully open to vaccinated travellers since October 11, the island nation is poised for a tourism boom, thanks to strong demand and a weaker yen that’s making the country more affordable.
Tourists from the US taking a selfie near Tokyo’s famous Sensoji temple, on October 19, 2022. Photo: Reuters

“It’s going to be difficult to catch taxis if overseas visitors return to pre-coronavirus levels,” said Kazuki Otsuka, chief executive of Daiwa Motor Transportation, one of the country’s largest taxi and limousine operators.

Roughly 498,600 overseas travellers visited Japan in October, according to preliminary figures released by the Japan National Tourism Organisation on Wednesday. That’s more than double the number in September and 24 times last year’s monthly average.

Around 498,600 overseas travellers visited Japan in October; more than twice as many as in September. Photo: AFP

The reported figure still pales in comparison to the record 32 million inbound visitors Japan saw during the peak of a tourism boom in 2019. With the nation’s economy unexpectedly shrinking last quarter, the prospect of renewed inbound spending by foreign tourists offers one bright spot.

There were already signs of an uptick, even before the October reopening. Foreign travel spending, defined as spending on goods and services by non-residents during visits, rose 51 per cent in September to 63.9 billion yen (US$455 million) from a year earlier, according to balance of payments data from the ministry of finance.

ANA Holdings, which seconded staff to other industries as the airline cut back on flights, is now recalling them as it adds back routes.

The number of people working at hotels is 30 per cent below pre-pandemic levels. Photo: Shutterstock

Flights to Narita – one of two main airports serving Tokyo – from Hong Kong have been almost fully booked since October 11, according to a spokesman for the airline.

“Tour agencies are flooding us with reservations and our schedule is filling up this year and the next two years,” said Shinji Ohgami, an executive officer at Ryobi Holdings, which operates 700 buses nationwide and has 8,500 employees. The industry is seeing only three drivers for every 20 buses, according to Ohgami.

Tabist, a hotel-management company backed by Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group and India’s OYO Hotels, sees inbound demand for its properties jumping to 1.5 million tourists from hundreds of thousands currently, even without visitors from China, where travel in and out of the country remains restricted.

Japan’s limousine bus industry has only three drivers for every 20 buses, according to one bus operator. Photo: Shutterstock

“Our industry reduced all management resources, including people, goods and money, for the past two-and-a-half years,” said Tabist president Ryota Tanozaki.

Daiwa Motor is looking to add more drivers, including college graduates and mid-career hires, according to Otsuka. In order to attract staff, the taxi company is redesigning its uniforms and promoting a programme that lets employees pursue further education at the company’s expense.

“We have no choice but to work hard and persevere,” Otsuka said.