Covid restrictions slow the reactivation of tourism in Japan and much of Asia

Only a trickle of tourists is visiting Japan two months after the government announced it would reopen borders that had been largely closed to foreign travelers for two years under coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

Analysts said the insistence of Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong on maintaining restrictions such as quarantine and testing in some jurisdictions had made the region a global outlier and slowed the recovery in tourism.

“Right now there’s a stark contrast with [parts of] Asia in a different league to the rest of the world,” said Brendan Sobie, travel industry analyst at Sobie Aviation.

Sobie added that tourism in Southeast and South Asia had recovered more quickly as countries there had already eased restrictions.

“Many tourists have not returned to the region and had already booked their summer holidays before [restrictions started lifting]so there is a delay in getting tourists back,” he said.

Although Japan reopened its borders in June, it has struggled to attract foreign visitors with strict travel guidelines that require visitors to be accompanied by a guide “from entry to exit.”

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The reopening also coincided with the country’s largest coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic, driven by the highly transmissible BA.5 Omicron subvariant. Japan’s daily Covid cases have fallen below 200,000 this week after surpassing 250,000 infections for the first time last week.

Despite a sharp fall in the yen, only 120,400 visitors entered Japan in June, down from May and April when borders were still closed, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Of these visitors, only 252 were tourists. Almost 32 million tourists visited Japan in 2019.

Clara Pellham, director of sales for US luxury tour operator TCS World Travel, said there was very little demand for her escorted private jet tour of Japan’s big cities, mainly because of confusion about the guidelines.

“Consumers and even travel advisors are unclear . . . what other restrictions they might encounter once they arrive in Japan,” Pelham said.

“Japan will not be a competitive destination until some of these restrictions are lifted.”

However, official numbers may not provide a full picture of how many foreign visitors have traveled to Japan, as the government has granted short-term visas to foreign nationals under “special exceptional circumstances” such as weddings and funerals.

Although China’s borders are still closed, Hong Kong began allowing international tourists to visit from May, but maintained a minimum seven-day quarantine, which was reduced to three days last week. The lockdown has crushed the travel industry and plunged the Chinese territory’s economy back into recession.

“Our starter [tourism] the computer is in hibernation mode. We have a skeleton staff to manage travelers,” said Lily Agonoy, general manager of Jebsen Holidays in Hong Kong. “Why would tourists come to Hong Kong if they have to be quarantined? Usually tourists only come for four or five days.”

South Korea is the “most open” of North Asian destinations, according to travel analyst Sobie, but Incheon Airport saw only 17 percent of passenger traffic compared to 2019 in second term.

All passengers arriving in South Korea must undergo a PCR test within 24 hours of arrival.

In a bid to boost tourist numbers, Seoul city authorities announced this month that tourists from Japan, Taiwan and Macau would temporarily have visa-free entry into South Korea for the rest of August. The average wait for a Japanese tourist to receive a Korean tourist visa is three to four weeks.

In April, Korea abandoned all remaining social distancing measures and downgraded Covid-19 to a “class 2” disease, along with conditions such as tuberculosis and cholera.

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