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People wearing face masks visit Nagoya Castle in central Japan. Photo: Kyodo

Japan plans for foreign tourists’ return with ‘North Korea-style’ tour groups for international visitors

  • Industry insiders say domestic tour agencies have been asked to run a closely screened trial of small-scale tours for international visitors to Japan
  • It comes amid rumours of a planned reopening to foreign tourists next spring – though Tokyo has not yet set a date and remains tight-lipped about its plans
Travel operators in Japan are preparing for the anticipated return of international visitors to the country with a small-scale “test run” of group tours for foreigners that industry insiders say will resemble “a trip to North Korea”.

Japan welcomed some 31.9 million international visitors in 2019, who spent 4.81 trillion yen (US$42.17 billion). But pandemic-era travel restrictions caused foreign arrivals in 2020 to plunge to a 22-year low, according to figures from the Japan National Tourism Organisation – leaving travel operators anxiously awaiting a reopening of the country’s borders.

No date has yet been set for when Japan will reopen to international tourists, though the travel sector saw hope in a loosening of restrictions on November 8 that slashed Covid-19 quarantine periods for vaccinated business travellers and allowed the return of international students and trainee workers with valid visas.

People walk along streets full of shops, bars and restaurants in Shibuya, an entertainment district of Tokyo. Photo: AP

Tokyo’s confirmation on Friday that the daily quota of people allowed into the country would from November 26 increase to 5,000 from 3,500 further raised expectations that more restrictions would soon be lifted.

Despite Covid-19 cases and deaths falling dramatically throughout Japan as vaccinations expanded to cover more than 75 per cent of the population, with fewer than 150 new cases now being reported on average each day nationwide, the government remains tight-lipped about its reopening plans and JNTO declined to comment for this article.

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But an industry insider told This Week In Asia that domestic tour agencies were being asked to run a closely screened trial programme of small-scale tours for overseas tourists, who will be required to arrive by air and travel on dedicated tour buses that will be forbidden from stopping in any major cities.

Instead, the groups will be taken to a less densely populated part of Japan – such as rural areas in Chiba, Niigata and Nagano prefectures – and instructed to remain within their hotel or resort.

“They will be brutally controlled throughout and the travellers will not be allowed to deviate from the plan at all,” the industry insider said. “But to us, it’s pointless. It’s unnecessary. The rules should be that anyone who has had both doses of the vaccine and can show that they are well should be allowed into Japan. If they don’t meet those criteria, then they should not be allowed in.”

Expected to start in December and continue through early next year, the tightly controlled tour-group trial runs are seen as a precursor to Japan’s gradual reopening to international tourism, which according to industry estimates could begin as soon as March or April if infection numbers stay low.

China was an important [tourism] market before the pandemic and it will be important again afterwards
Shinya Kurosawa, JTB Global Marketing and Travel

Japanese travel firms have been making preparations in anticipation of a tourism restart, with regional airport operator Mitsubishi Estate Co signing an agreement this month with Chinese travel agency to jointly promote Japan as a destination, and cruise lines resuming domestic operations since September with new Covid-19 safety measures in place.

Budget carrier Zipair, a subsidiary of Japan Airlines, also announced earlier this month that it would launch a low-cost service between Tokyo and Los Angeles in December – becoming the first budget airline to link Asia with North America.

Shinya Kurosawa, president and CEO of JTB Global Marketing and Travel, said his company was looking forward to the return of tourists from mainland China – though there is no indication of when this will happen, especially given Beijing’s strict quarantine system and zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19.

“China was an important market before the pandemic and it will be important again afterwards,” he said. “We expect Beijing, Shanghai Guangzhou, Changsha and other urban areas with large populations of wealthy people to be the most active, with Shanghai in particular home to many companies and regular flights to Japan.”

Mount Fuji, Japan's highest mountain, is seen from Chiba prefecture – one of the areas suggested for the trial run of closely screened foreign tour groups. Photo: AFP
Tadokoro Akito, director of the Tokyo Convention and Visitors Bureau, confirmed industry hopes of a spring reopening to international tourism and said he was sure visitors from Hong Kong – who pre-pandemic accounted for a sizeable portion of the Japanese capital’s foreign tourists – “will be back as soon as the borders are open again”.
Hong Kong has prioritised reopening the border with mainland China before anywhere else, a process that is not expected to be fully complete before June at the latest.

“Before the coronavirus pandemic, people saw Tokyo as being a safe city with plenty to see and do, but they are also recognising that Japan is not an expensive place to visit and it’s easy and quick to get to from Hong Kong,” Akito said.

Domestic tourism has long taken precedent over international arrivals in Japan, with “around 70 per cent of the industry based on domestic travel, compared to 30 per cent from overseas”, according to Alex Bradshaw, founder of travel consultancy Gotoku in Kagoshima prefecture – where nearly 30 per cent of international arrivals in 2019 were from Hong Kong, with a further 13 per cent from mainland China.

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Bradshaw said his company was already fielding inquiries from well-heeled travellers who are “desperate” to return to Japan amid “a lot of hope and anticipation of a rebound” in international travel – but said “the industry needs a clear road map of how they are going to do that, hopefully with a solid date next spring”.

“At the same time, I understand why the government is being cautious and not simply throwing the borders open,” he said. “The immediate priority is the domestic travel sector.”

Additional reporting by Reuters