Japan is open to travel. So why don’t tourists come back?

This is especially striking in Japan, which reopened with much fanfare in June 2022, just in time for the peak travel season. Between June 10 and July 10, the country welcomed about 1,500 leisure tourists, according to data from the Japan Immigration Services Agency. This represents a 95% drop compared to the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.

So what is causing the disparity? And why are travelers taking so long to return to what has historically been a popular destination?

No safety in numbers

Although Japan is becoming accessible again, the country currently only allows leisure tourists to come in organized groups and not as individuals. For many in the West, who prefer spontaneity and don’t want to follow a strict itinerary, this issue was a deal breaker.

“We don’t need to be children,” says Melissa Musiker, a New York-based PR professional who used to travel to Japan regularly.

Musiker and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times.” The couple had planned to visit again in 2022 when they heard the borders were reopening, but were frustrated by the restrictions and gave up.

Instead, they opt for a new destination and go to South Korea for their vacation.

“We don’t want to quarantine ourselves. That was a big factor,” says Musiker. “We just like to go pick each other up, shop and eat expensive sushi.”

The preference for city visits over beach vacations tipped the scales in Seoul’s favor, as did its pandemic-born K-dramas addiction.

The Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, Japan was normally surrounded by tourists and street vendors.

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The semi-open is not open

Japan’s not-fully-open policy doesn’t just apply to visas. The country still has mask rules in many areas, group tours can be expensive and Japan requires quarantine on arrival, making it a tougher sell.

Katie Tam is the co-founder of Arry, a members-only subscription platform that helps visitors to Japan book reservations at some of Tokyo’s most sought-after restaurants, including Obama-endorsed and recent list-topper Sukiyabashi Jiro of the best restaurants in Asia, Den.

Before the pandemic, many of Arry’s users were Asian travelers, living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore, visiting Japan several times a year or just popping in for a spontaneous long weekend . Since 2020, however, the company has had to stop.

“We didn’t know it would take this long,” he says of what was supposed to be a short-term hiatus. “It’s definitely been tough.”

The few members who are starting to contact Arry about bookings, Tam says, are people who have been able to get business travel visas to Japan. This is currently the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as solo visitors, and some take advantage of the lack of crowds to get seats at restaurants they previously couldn’t reserve.

There is good news, though. Despite the challenges, many of Japan’s best restaurants have fared well amid the pandemic.

“Many of the restaurants we work with have a strong local customer base,” says Tam. On the other hand, this means that these popular places will continue to operate as long as foreign tourists can come.

According to the Immigration Services Agency, the two largest markets for Japanese tourism are now Thailand and South Korea. But “biggest” here is relative: About 400 people from each country have visited Japan since June. Only 150 came from the United States.

Before the pandemic, Kyoto's narrow streets were packed with visitors.

Before the pandemic, Kyoto’s narrow streets were packed with visitors.

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The China effect

In 2019, Japan’s largest tourist market was neighboring China, with 9.25 million Chinese visitors.

Now, however, China remains essentially isolated from the rest of the world. It still has strict quarantine protocols for citizens and foreigners alike, so tourism grinds to a halt.

Japan is not the only country that has been significantly impacted by the lack of Chinese travelers. Popular destinations for Chinese tourists, including Australia, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea, have lost revenue as more than a billion potential travelers stay home.
Tokyo Skytree is the tallest structure in Japan.

Tokyo Skytree is the tallest structure in Japan.

Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Reuters

Hiroyuki Ami, Tokyo Skytree’s head of public relations, says it took until June 27 for the first international tour group to arrive at the observation deck. The group in question consisted of guests from Hong Kong.

The financial center city has strict restrictions, including mandatory hotel quarantine for returning residents, but it has still been easier for tourists to travel from there than from mainland China.

“Before Covid, says Ami, “the biggest number (of foreign visitors) was from China, but I haven’t seen them recently.” He confirmed that the majority of visitors to Skytree in the past six weeks have been local Japanese during your summer vacation.

“Just because the acceptance of tourists has resumed does not mean that we have been receiving many customers from abroad,” he adds.

Waiting in the wings

Odds are good that when and if Japan decides to fully reopen to individual leisure tourists, they’ll want to come. The catchphrase ‘revenge trips’ was coined to describe people who saved money during Covid and now want to blow it on a big bucket list trip, and Japan remains a popular bucket list destination .

“There’s a lot of interest in going back to Japan,” says Tam, Arry’s co-founder. “I think it’s going to increase.”

CNN’s Kathleen Benoza in Tokyo contributed reporting.

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