Is Japan open to travelers? It’s where Singaporeans want to travel

About 49% of Singaporeans say they are considering Japan for their next overseas holiday, according to market research firm YouGov.

Interest may be even greater among young citizens. About 68% of Singaporeans aged 16 to 24 indicated they are considering Japan for their “next holiday”, compared with 37% of those aged 55 and over, according to research published in May.

Japan was the top choice among respondents by a wide margin, with the second choice, Taiwan, piqued the interest of 39% of respondents. According to the results, 26% indicated an interest in going on holiday to Malaysia, but this may have been affected by the survey question, which specifically asked about travel plans “by plane”.

Still, Wanping Aw, chief executive of Tokyo-based travel agency Tokudaw, said his company saw a huge increase in business after Japan reopened its borders in June, with 50% of inquiries and bookings coming from Singapore, he said.

Why Singaporeans like Japan

Japan has always been a popular destination among Singaporeans, said Aw, especially among those who want a change of season.

Spring and winter are the two “peak seasons” for Singapore travelers, he said: “They really like the cherry blossoms and the snow.”

Singapore trader Alex Ng said he is planning a trip to Japan this fall.

Wanping Aw in Shinjuku Gyoen, a popular park in Tokyo. Aw, who is from Singapore, has been living in Japan for 13 years.

Source: Wanping Aw

Ng, a self-described “Japanophile,” said the country hits the “sweet spot” between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

He said Japan’s safety, cleanliness and professionalism are like Singapore’s, as is the culture’s adherence to social norms for the collective good.

“Trains won’t go on strike while you’re coming back from a day trip,” he said. “We feel comfortable operating in this structure. It’s familiar how we live here, probably why most Singaporeans also like Switzerland.”

The food is also familiar, rice-based with ingredients like fish, pork and tofu, but “it branches out from there in a myriad of fascinating directions.”

Alex Ng said most Singaporeans enjoy the intricacies of Japanese culture. “It’s cathartic and inspiring to experience.”

Source: Alex Ng

He said he also appreciates the religious differences between the two countries.

“We are lucky to have a variety of religions here in Singapore,” he said. But “Shinto, which informs much of Japanese life and culture, especially its architecture, aesthetics, cultivation and maintenance of natural spaces, is quite different from what we grew up around.”

And the cherry blossoms? “Hundreds of years were spent cultivating tens of thousands of cherry blossoms … for a few weeks of vibrant festivities each year.”

“I still haven’t had enough of the show,” he said.

Confusion abounds

Singapore is one of more than 100 countries and territories marked “blue” in Japan’s color-coded entry classification system.

Travelers to these locations are not required to undergo a Covid-19 test or quarantine upon arrival, nor are they required to be vaccinated to enter. However, visas and pre-flight Covid-19 PCR tests are required, according to the Japanese Embassy in Singapore website.

But requirements beyond that have left many travelers confused, Aw said.

This is especially true in the case of the rule that allows tourists to enter “only when a travel agency, including other travel organizers, serves as the host organization for the participants,” as stated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Outside of Japan

Websites like these use “a language that talks in a loop,” Aw said.

Everyone is confused and stressed about the visa application process.

“And this misunderstanding is intensified by the fact that Japanese embassies use the word – travel package,” he said. This conjures up images of “between 30 and 40 strangers on a big bus, taking a fixed route with a preset itinerary”.

But that’s not accurate, he said.

One person can book a “package tour,” he said, adding that he has arranged three solo travel bookings, including one to Singapore, since Japan’s borders opened in June.

The term “fixed itinerary” is also confusing potential travelers.

“Everyone seems to be under the impression that they have to set their itinerary to the hour or the minute … which is hard to achieve,” he said. “But it’s not as hard as it looks.”

Another problem: “Everyone is confused and stressed about the visa application process,” he said.

To apply for a tourist visa, travelers must plan an itinerary and book their flights and accommodation before it can process their “ERFS certificates,” he said, referring to an approval document visitors need before to be able to apply for their visas.

Only Japanese companies can apply for the certificate, but travelers can work through travel agencies in their home countries, which in turn work with their local partners in Japan, he said.

Once an ERFS certificate is obtained, travelers can apply for their visas, Aw said.

Finally, the companion

In addition to working with an agency, international travelers must also travel with a companion “at all times,” Aw said.

Guests must pay for the chaperone, who is an employee of the travel agency, Aw said. But on the plus side, chaperones can help with things like restaurant reservations and train schedules to make trips run more smoothly, he said.

An escorted trip is not a deal breaker for Ng, nor are the rest of Japan’s travel rules, he said. However, he said he would probably travel to Japan more often if the rules were less onerous.

For now, Ng said he is optimistic.

“There is a good chance that Japan will further relax restrictions soon, given that the election is now over,” he said.

Ng said he has secured his flights and hotels, but not his visa, on the assumption that, in the fall, the rules may be different.

Aw said many other Singaporeans are doing the same. They are making plans, but pushing the process to apply for their visas “for as long as they can,” he said.

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