Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (2-L) poses with John Tuttle (R), Vice Chairman of the NYSE Group, before the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange on September 22, 2022
New York (AFP) – Japan announced Thursday that it will lift strict COVID-19 restrictions on foreign tourists, and reopen borders after two and a half years.
Speaking at the New York Stock Exchange, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the pandemic has halted the free flow of people, goods and capital that helped the country thrive.
“But from October 11, Japan will ease border control measures to be on par with the United States, as well as resume visa-free and individual travel,” said Kishida, who is in the city for the United Nations General Assembly.
Japan, along with China, has been reluctant to continue strict restrictions on visitors as much of the world has moved on from the pandemic.
But unlike China, Japan has never imposed a strict lockdown during the crisis.
Tourists who come to Japan will enjoy the weakening yen, which has fallen so sharply against the dollar that the Ministry of Finance intervened in the currency market on Thursday for the first time since 1998.
The return of the Visa Waiver Program suspended in March 2020 will restore the ease of access that saw 31.9 million foreign visitors registered to the country in 2019.
Since June, Japan has allowed tourists to visit in guided groups, a requirement that has been relaxed to include self-guided guided tours.
James Brady, head of Japan analysis at US-based consultancy Teneo, said the cautious approach to reopening was deliberate.
Brady told AFP that Kishida “has taken office a year ago knowing that the mishandling of the pandemic was a major factor in undermining public confidence” in his predecessor’s government.
“He was very careful not to repeat those mistakes.”
Japan has recorded about 42,600 deaths from the coronavirus – a much lower rate than many other countries – and 90 percent of the population aged 65 or older has received three vaccinations.
There is no law requiring people to wear masks, but they are still found almost everywhere in public places such as trains and stores, with many Japanese wanting to wear masks when sick even before the outbreak of the epidemic.
Brady said that while the return of mass tourism should give a “slight bump” to the Japanese economy, the benefits are likely to be limited by China’s no-coronavirus policy.
He explained, “A lot of the economic benefits before the pandemic came from the large numbers of Chinese visitors who come and spend a lot of money on technical products and cosmetics.”
But “Currently, Chinese citizens are facing their own travel restrictions at home and will not travel to Japan in large numbers.”
However, there is pent-up demand for travel to the country, according to Olivier Ponty, vice president of insights for travel analytics firm ForwardKeys.
“Travel searches for Japan hit their highest point this year at the end of August,” and while flight bookings were only 16 percent of 2019 levels in early September, “we expect an uptick in bookings” when visa rules are scrapped, Ponte said.
Demand from Europe may remain weak “due to the increase in the cost of living in Europe due to the Russian-Ukrainian crisis as well as higher fuel costs which have led to higher costs of air travel,” said Liz Ortigueira, CEO of the Asia Pacific Travel Consortium.