As countries across Asia reopen to international travelers, Japan – one of the continent’s most popular destinations – remains tightly closed.
That may change soon. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced at a news conference in London on Thursday that Japan would ease border controls in June.
Locals often celebrate the relaxation of epidemic-related border restrictions, but some in Japan say they are keeping the arrangements in place.
According to the government-backed Japan Tourism Agency, even before the epidemic, many locals preferred to travel within the country, with domestic tourism totaling 2019 21.9 trillion yen ($ 167 billion) in 2019.
Dai Miyamoto, founder of the Japan Localized Travel Agency, says that although Japanese are currently allowed to travel abroad, many “do not want to go abroad” and choose “travel within the country” instead.
Izumi Mikami, senior executive director of the Japan Space System, visited Kyushu Island and Okinawa Island, two tourist hotspots before the epidemic. He said he feels safe as there are less tourists in the vicinity.
Some people are taking advantage of the fact that they spend more time at home.
Shogo Mauritius, a university student, took multiple ski trips to Nagano – the prefecture that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympic Games – and said it was “surprisingly crowded” with locals.
“Not everyone like us has traveled for a long time … now, it’s almost like [Covid-19] Not really here, “said Maurice.” I don’t think anyone is afraid of it anymore. “
Others have traveled to new destinations.
“After moving to Yamagata Prefecture, I start going to places I don’t usually go, like ski resorts … warm springs in the mountains and aquariums and sandy beaches,” said Shion Ichikawa, an internet firm, line risk management worker. .
The tour is changing
According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, international travel to Japan dropped from about 32 million in 2019 to just 250,000 in 2021.
With almost all local clients, some tour companies have redesigned their tours to suit local interests.
Japanese travelers have moved away from visiting big cities and opting for outdoor experiences that they can “discover on foot,” Miyamoto said. So Japan Localized – which provided its tours to English-speaking foreigners before the epidemic – collaborated with local tour companies My My Kyoto and My My Tokyo for Japanese-language walking tours.
People across Japan are also spending time at camping sites and onsens – or Hot Spring – Spa, says Li Jianji, chief developer of the tour company Craft Tab.
“Campsites have become very popular,” he said. “Caravan rentals and outdoor gear sales are doing very well because people are going out a lot more.”
Luxury onsens, popular with young people, are “doing pretty well”, but traditional onsens are hurting because adults are “too scared of covid” and don’t go out too much, Lee said.
Kraft Taby used to conduct walking and cycling tours in Kyoto, but moved online when the epidemic hit. As countries reopened their borders, “online tours are not doing well” and participation “dropped to almost zero,” Lee said.
The appetite of tourists is changing and people are looking for “niche” activities in “rural areas where it is not so densely populated”, he said.
Lee now lives in a village called Reujinmura, south of Kyoto, and plans to conduct tours in rural towns when tourists return.
“We need to think about tours and activities here where people can explore new things,” he added.
According to the Japan Tourism Agency, it welcomed about 32 million international visitors in 2019 – up from just 6.8 million ten years ago.
Due to the rapid growth of tourists, major attractions such as the culturally rich city of Kyoto have had to contend with excessive tourism.
Kyoto residents now say “silence has returned,” said Miyamoto, who cited examples where foreign tourists spoke out loud and were dissatisfied with locals.
Similarly, Lee said that “a lot of people who were very upset about over-tourism in Kyoto” are now saying “it looks like Kyoto was like 20 years ago – good old Kyoto.”
But that may be over.
Is Japan ready to move forward?
Prime Minister Kishida’s announcement may not be welcome news for some sections of the Japanese population.
According to The New York Times, in a recent survey conducted by the Japanese broadcaster NHK, more than 65% of respondents said they agree or believe the border system should be strengthened.
Local reports indicate that international travelers may need to book a packaged tour for multiple Covid-19 tests and entry, although JNTO has told CNBC that they have not yet received any information on the matter. Still, it may not be enough to calm some residents down.
The cost of foreign visitors contributes less than 5% to Japan’s gross domestic product, so “it is not surprising for the government to prioritize other industries,” said Shintaro Okuno, partner and chairman of Bain & Company Japan, explaining why the country was closed..
Women wearing kimono tie a “Omikuji” fortune strip outside the Yasaka Temple during the Golden Weekend holiday in Kyoto, Japan on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.
Kosuke Okahara | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Ichikawa said the recent decision may be the most unpopular among Japan’s senior citizens. According to research firm PRB, about 1 in 3 people is over the age of 65, making Japan home to the world’s largest percentage of older people.
“There is more superstition among the elderly than among the younger ones that the Covid-19 has been brought in by foreigners,” Ichikawa said. “It’s understandable that in Japan – a country of older people – politicians need to tighten borders to protect them physically and mentally.”
When the epidemic was at its height, the Japanese were wary of even people from other parts of Japan visiting their hometowns.
“I saw signboards in public parks and tourist attractions saying ‘there are no cars outside Wakayama,'” Lee said. “People were quite scared for others from outside the prefecture.”
However, city dwellers may feel differently.
“Japan is very strict and conservative in controlling the Kovid-19,” said Mikami, who lives in Tokyo.
Miyako Komai, a teacher living in Tokyo, said he was ready to move on.
“We need to invite more foreigners to help Japan’s economy recover,” he said. “I do not agree that we want to strengthen the system … we need to start living a normal life.”