After two and a half years, Japan has declared that it will reopen its borders to foreign tourists by relaxing its harsh COVID regulations.
The unrestricted movement of people, goods, and capital that had contributed to the nation’s flourishing had been disrupted, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida declared at the New York Stock Exchange.
Kishida, who is in town for the UN General Assembly, has said, “But from October 11, Japan will loosen border control measures to be on par with the US and also begin visa-free travel and individual travel.”
Both Japan and China are lone wolves in maintaining stringent visiting restrictions even though the rest of the world has moved on from the pandemic.
However, unlike China, Japan did not implement a complete lockdown throughout the crisis.
With the yen’s precipitous drop against the dollar on Thursday, the Japanese finance ministry intervened in the currency market for the first time since 1998, providing a boon to visiting tourists.
A record 31.9 million tourists from abroad visited the country in 2019, and that number is expected to grow once the visa-waiver program, which was suspended in March 2020, is reinstated.
Japan has relaxed its requirement for tourists to travel in groups with guides since June, allowing for both self-guided and guided package tours.
According to James Brady, lead Japan analyst at US-based consultancy Teneo, the deliberate slowness in reopening has been done on purpose.
According to AFP, Kishida “took office a year ago knowing that perceived mishandling of the pandemic had been a key factor in undermining public confidence” in his predecessor’s government.
He has taken great precautions to avoid a recurrence.
The total number of coronavirus deaths in Japan is estimated to be around 42,600, which is significantly lower than the rates in many other countries. Additionally, roughly 90% of Japanese citizens aged 65 and up have received all three recommended doses of the vaccine.
Even before the pandemic, many Japanese were willing to wear masks when they were sick, so their near-ubiquity in public places like trains and stores is not surprising.
People in the streets of Tokyo were enthusiastic about the news.
Michio Kano, 76, who owns a bar, thinks it’s a good idea to slowly bring back international visitors.
He advocated for a subsequent easing of anti-Covid regulations to accompany the shift.
You can’t have it both ways, he argued; you can’t make exceptions for foreigners while telling the Japanese, “Don’t do this or that.”
Katsunori Mukai, 28, believes that as long as there are no spikes in instances, Japan should be open to tourists.
People can visit as often as they like, as long as there is no real risk of contracting a serious sickness, he said. “It’s true that here we still have the culture of wearing masks and other things.”
China’s zero-Covid policy may mitigate some of the positive effects of the return of mass tourism on Japan’s economy, according to expert Brady.
He explained that before the pandemic, the country benefited economically from the large number of Chinese tourists who spent money on things like technology and beauty products.
However, “at the present time, Chinese citizens are subject to their own travel limitations within China and will not be coming to Japan in huge numbers.”
In spite of this, Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights at travel analytics company ForwardKeys, claims that there is latent demand for travel to the country.
While flight bookings were only 16% of 2019 levels in early September, “we’d expect bookings to jump” when the visa rules are scrapped, Ponti said. “Searches for travel to Japan reached their peak of the year at the end of August.”
Liz Ortiguera, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, has speculated that demand from Europe may remain muted “due to the increase in the cost of living in Europe caused by the Russian-Ukraine crisis plus the rising fuel costs driving up air travel costs.”