Japan reopens its doors to tourists after two and a half years of tough Covid restrictions, and travelers flock to it
TOKYO (AFP) – Japan reopened its doors to tourists on Tuesday after two and a half years of severe COVID-19 restrictions, as officials hope an influx of travelers lured by a weak yen will boost the economy.
By mid-morning, tourists from Israel, France and Britain were already flocking to, including Chris Irwin, 38, on his first trip to Japan.
“We’ve always wanted to come to Japan, and it looked like the stars had just lined up,” said Irwin, who arrived at Haneda Airport from Britain with his wife.
Adi Bromstein, 69, a retiree from Israel, said she had been “planning before Covid and waiting and waiting” for the opportunity to visit Japan.
“It’s a long, long dream come true,”
Japan closed its borders early in the pandemic, at one point even banned foreign residents from returning, and only recently began cautiously reopening them.
In June, it began allowing tourists to visit in guided groups, a requirement that was further relaxed to include self-guided guided tours.
As of Tuesday, visa-free entry has been resumed for travelers from 68 countries and regions.
Japan also raised a cap on the number of arrivals and ended requirements for the package tour.
Tourists must still provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test taken three days before departure.
In 2019, a record 31.9 million foreign visitors came to Japan, putting the country on track to achieve its goal of 40 million by 2020, when Tokyo was supposed to host the Summer Olympics.
But in 2021, the number dropped to only 250 thousand.
– high demand –
In Japan, tourists will find a country still abiding by many of the health guidelines that have helped it keep epidemic deaths at around 45,500, much lower than many other advanced economies.
In Japan, tourists will find a country still abiding by many of the guidelines that have helped it keep pandemic deaths lower than many other developed nations, including masks.
Masks are everywhere, and while not required by law, Parliament is set to pass legislation allowing hotels to refuse service to customers who refuse to wear one or violate other health rules.
Masks are worn not only indoors and on public transport, but outdoors as well, although the government says they are not necessary outside in uncrowded places.
There is hand sanitizer at the entrance to most businesses, and plastic dividers are still often used in restaurants.
However, many incoming tourists seemed unfazed by the rules.
“We’re more excited to see Japan than we are bothered by the masks, so we’ll be fine with it,” said British traveler Irwin.
Another major change for tourists will be the weakening of the yen, which is hovering around 145 against the dollar, a level not seen in two decades.
The government has already had to intervene once to prop up the currency, and government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno said on Tuesday that officials hope the tourism boom will “lead to recovery after the Covid pandemic and revitalize communities.”
There’s certainly no shortage of demand, according to Antoine Chanthafong, of the Paris-based travel agency Destination Japan.
“We are completely overwhelmed, we don’t have enough time to deal with all the requests,” he told AFP since the reopening was announced.
Travelers, among the first in Japan since strict Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, look at the arrival board at the international arrivals hall at Haneda Airport in Tokyo.
Japan’s airline ANA said reservations for international flights to the country increased fivefold after the reopening was announced.
For now, tickets aren’t cheap anymore, with fuel prices soaring and airlines having to take roundabouts to avoid Russian airspace.
Itai Galili, 22, a student from Israel, said the cost did not put him off.
“As soon as I heard that it would reopen on the eleventh, I started planning. Tickets are very expensive…but there is no price too high,” he told AFP.
Despite all the rebound in demand, there is little expectation that tourist numbers will quickly reach 2019 levels.
Before the pandemic, travelers from Hong Kong and mainland China made up 37 percent of all foreign visitors to Japan, and 44 percent of tourism income.
But strict Covid restrictions in China make it unlikely that visitors from there will return to Japan anytime soon.