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Visitors walk on Mount Daisen in western Japan’s Tottori Prefecture on June 5. The nation is gradually reopening its borders and many tourists are keen to book trips. Photo: Kyodo

Japan’s June 10 reopening: tourism sector braces for surge of travel-starved visitors eager to ‘experience, not see’ the country

  • As borders further reopen to travellers, tourism firms are reporting a surge in bookings and more inquiries about cycling, hiking, eating, skiing trips
  • Much of the demand is from US, Europe, Australia, as strict coronavirus rules in China and Hong Kong seem to be skewering Asia’s interest
Japan’s travel industry is eagerly anticipating the fuller reopening of borders to foreign tourists on Friday, with operators reporting surging interest in destinations, activities and sights across the country over the coming months.

The latest step in Japan’s cautious easing of restrictions on travellers will allow groups on package tours to enter the country, although they are under strict instructions to always wear protective masks in public, travel with a local guide, follow coronavirus prevention measures and have comprehensive health insurance.

Despite those requirements, the first knots of foreign tourists have been spotted clearing immigration at Japanese airports.

After effectively banning visitors from overseas as the pandemic spread around the globe, the Japanese government doubled the limit on people coming into the country to 20,000 individuals on June 1. Now, it is anticipated that as long as the early stages of the “return to normal” go as planned, that ceiling can soon be raised again and, ultimately, abolished altogether.


Japan to welcome small tour groups after scrapping travel curbs on international visitors

Japan to welcome small tour groups after scrapping travel curbs on international visitors
And while the industry is delighted at the gradual reopening of Japan to the outside world and is reporting an extremely high level of interest from travellers and a steady flow of bookings, particularly at the luxury end of the market, there is a hint of concern below the surface that another sudden spike in coronavirus cases or the impact of a widely predicted economic downturn may yet play havoc with operators’ ambitions.

“Finally, we’re opening up again,” said Hiro Miyatake, who set up the Bear Luxe Corp network of travel companies in 2018. “It has been a really long and tough two-and-a-half years for the industry, but we have hung in there, worked hard with our partners and now there is a real sense of optimism again as inquiries come in and bookings start to pick up.

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“There have been false dawns before, with the government hinting that the situation was recovering to the point that the borders might be reopened soon, only for an increase in new cases or a new variant to emerge, so we have not been taking it for granted, but it does look like it’s happening this time,” he said.

Miyatake said the industry had anticipated that the bulk of early bookings for Japan would be from other nations in the Asia-Pacific region, but setbacks in the fight against the virus in a number of key source markets, including China, and strict quarantine rules for anyone re-entering Hong Kong, for example, appear to be skewing demand.

“We have been surprised to see a lot of demand from the US, Europe and Australia,” he said. “Now we are hoping for the domino effect to kick in as more and more people realise that Japan is open to visitors once again.”

People walk with a snowboarder at the bottom of a ski slope in January 2021 in Niseko, Japan. The country hopes to see huge numbers on its ski slopes in the coming winter. Photo: Getty Images

Within the pent-up demand, Miyatake has also noticed a slight shift in travellers’ requirements.

“There are still a lot of people wanting to see Tokyo and Kyoto and experience skiing in Niseko in winter, but we are also getting a lot of very specific requests,” he said, ranging from bicycle tours of relatively obscure parts of Japan to visits to exclusive restaurants for food-lovers.

“I think we are seeing a shift away from simply visiting Japan to see the sights to people wanting trips with a clearly defined purpose or that are meaningful to them,” he said. “People want to experience Japan now, rather than just to see it.”

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Hiroaki Takagi, of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Board in Wakayama Prefecture, echoed that belief, pointing to a sharp increase in inquiries about hiking the hundreds of kilometres of the Kumano Kodo, the ancient pilgrimage trails that criss-cross the Kii Peninsula in central Japan.

“We are getting inquiries on a daily basis, with lots of people from Europe and North America very keen to visit,” he said. “For the last few years, it has been very quiet around here as the only visitors were Japanese or foreigners living in Japan.

“One good thing is that people from abroad who had booked before the pandemic never cancelled their trips, they just postponed them as they still wanted to come,” he said. “Those have been the first people to contact us now the travel restrictions are being lifted again.”

A woman tries street food in Kyoto, Japan. Many tourists are keen to do the same. Photo: Shutterstock

Michael Chen, co-CEO of the H2 Group, which owns and manages more than 150 luxury properties in and around Hokkaido’s skiing hotspots of Niseko and Furano, also reported renewed confidence in the industry after “a dark couple of years”.

“The optimism is palpable and you can quite clearly see communities that came to rely on the tourism trade before the pandemic coming back to life,” he said.

Chen estimated that bookings by foreign visitors are already up by around 400 per cent on last year, although he admitted that the inbound sector was at rock-bottom 12 months ago, but nevertheless, “it’s a good start, an encouraging start,” he said.

“There is clearly a lot of pent-up demand for Japan in general and Hokkaido in particular, and I think a lot of that is simply because people have been stuck in their homes, not able to go anywhere and now they just want to get out into the open and to see and feel nature again,” Chen said.

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“We have plenty of that here and I’m sure that people who know Hokkaido will be back as soon as they can.”

The local community in a region known for arguably the best skiing conditions in the world has not been resting on its laurels during the enforced lockdown, with the longest zip line in Asia opening in Hanazono this month and the ski slopes serving as the canvas for the “Mountain Lights” installation by internationally renowned English-Australian artist Bruce Munro, which opens next month.

Chen believes the decision to reopen may have come slightly too late for foreign visitors to book holidays in Hokkaido this summer, meaning travel firms will once more be relying on domestic travellers, but he is confident that when the ski season kicks in at the end of November, winter sports fans will be back on the slopes.

“We already have the last three weeks of December at our top property booked and it is already looking strong across the board,” he said.

Women visiting the Sensoji Temple, a tourist spot in Tokyo, in May. Photo: AFP

Yet there are factors that are completely beyond the control of the industry that are clouds on the horizon, Chen admitted.

“Right now, things look really good, but we never know what is coming,” he said. “A new strain of the virus could emerge and the government steps back from reopening. Or our core markets of Hong Kong and China have a problem, the quarantine requirements stay in place and people are just not able to travel like they want to. Or we could have the economic crisis that some analysts are warning about.

“But we have to go with what we have at the moment, and right now things look positive,” he said. “I’ve seen predictions that this year will be somewhere between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of what we did in 2019. But give us a couple of seasons, and we will be right back where we were.”