Stories about travel mishaps, overcrowding at major destinations and airports, and potentially life-threatening heat waves in Europe have dominated the news cycle throughout the summer of 2022. However, in Asia, where many countries are reopening in a more gradual fashion—with fewer flight cancellations or horror stories about lost luggage—tourists have been slow to return to the region.
This is particularly striking in Japan, which reopened to much fanfare in June 2022, just in time for the busiest travel season in the country’s history. According to the data provided by Japan‘s Immigration Services Agency, the nation welcomed approximately 1,500 leisure tourists between the 10th of June and the 10th of July. That represents a decrease of 95% when compared to the same time period in 2019, before the pandemic.
So, what factors contribute to such a disparity? And why are travellers taking such a long time to come back to a place that has traditionally been a popular vacation spot? The best islands to visit in Japan range from Okinawa to the island sanctuary for cats on Aoshima.
There is no security in numbers.
Even though Japan is once again open to visitors, the country at this time only allows leisure travellers to enter in the form of organised groups rather than as independent travellers. This issue was a non-starter for many people in the West because they value spontaneity and don’t want to adhere to a predetermined schedule.
Melissa Musiker, a public relations professional based in New York City who used to travel to Japan on a regular basis, is quoted as saying, “We don’t need to be babysat.”
It has been “about six times” for Musiker and her husband since they first visited Tokyo. When they found out that the borders would be reopening in 2022, the couple had already made plans to return, but they became dissatisfied with the restrictions and decided against going.
They have decided to change their plans and spend their vacation in South Korea as opposed to going somewhere else. “We do not wish to implement a quarantine.” That played a significant role, according to Musiker. “We just like to go hang out, shop, and eat expensive sushi,” said one of the members of the group.
The fact that she enjoys visiting cities more than going to the beach helped tip the scales in favour of Seoul, as did the fact that she is addicted to K-dramas due to a widespread epidemic. In Kyoto, Japan, the Yasaka shrine is typically surrounded by a large number of tourists as well as street vendors.
Semi-open isn’t open
The policy of Japan being partially closed to foreigners does not only apply to visas. The fact that Japan requires visitors to go through a quarantine upon arrival; the fact that the country still has mask rules in many areas; and the high cost of group tours all contribute to the difficulty of selling Japan as a tourist destination.
Arry is a members-only subscription platform that helps visitors to Japan score reservations at some of Tokyo’s most in-demand restaurants. These restaurants include Sukiyabashi Jiro, which was endorsed by President Obama, and Den, which recently topped the list of Asia’s Best Restaurants. Katie Tam is one of the co-founders of Arry.
Before the pandemic, a significant number of Arry’s users were Asian tourists. These people typically resided in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, or Singapore, and they travelled to Japan on multiple occasions per year or on a more sporadic basis when they had the opportunity. However, the company has been forced to go on hiatus ever since the year 2020.
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She comments on the delay, which was only meant to be a temporary setback, saying, “We didn’t know that it would take so long.” “It has most certainly been a challenging experience.”
Tam says that the few members who have been able to obtain business travel visas to Japan are the ones who have started getting back in touch with Arry about making bookings. At the moment, this is the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as unaccompanied tourists, and some of them are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to get reservations at restaurants that they weren’t able to get in the past.
There is, however, one bright spot in all of this. In spite of the difficulties, many of Japan’s finest restaurants have been operating successfully despite the pandemic.
Tam comments that “a lot of the restaurants we work with have a strong local base of clients.” On the bright side, this indicates that these well-known establishments will continue to draw customers whenever there are visitors from other countries.
The Immigration Services Agency reports
The Immigration Services Agency reports that Thailand and South Korea are currently the two most important source countries for tourists visiting Japan. However, “biggest” is a relative term in this context because approximately 400 people from each country have travelled to Japan since June. The United States contributed only 150 in total. Prior to the pandemic, the city of Kyoto’s crowded, winding streets were teeming with tourists.
The influence of China
The neighbouring country of China was Japan’s single most important tourism market in 2019, with 9.25 million Chinese tourists visiting the country. However, China continues to be isolated from the rest of the world to a significant extent. As a result of the continued implementation of stringent quarantine protocols, which apply equally to locals and visitors from other countries, tourism has come to a complete halt.
The decline in the number of Chinese tourists visiting other countries has not only been detrimental to Japan’s economy but also to other nations as well. As a result of the Chinese government’s travel restrictions, many popular tourist destinations in Southeast Asia and Oceania, including Australia, Thailand, Singapore, and South Korea, have seen their revenues decrease.
AFLO/Reuters Rodrigo Reyes Marin
The first international tour group did not arrive at the observation deck of the Tokyo Skytree until the 27th of June, according to Hiroyuki Ami, the head of public relations at the Tokyo Skytree. Those in question were visitors hailing from Hong Kong, and they made up the group in question.
Even though the city that serves as a financial hub has stringent restrictions, such as a mandatory hotel quarantine for returning residents, it has been much simpler for tourists to travel there than it has been from mainland China.
According to Ami, “the largest number (of foreign visitors) was from China, but I haven’t seen them recently.” This was before COVID came into existence. It was confirmed by him that the majority of visitors to Skytree over the past month have been Japanese citizens spending their summer vacations there.
He continues by saying, “Just because we are once again accepting tourists does not mean that we have been receiving a large number of customers from overseas.”
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Individual leisure tourists will want to visit Japan once it decides to fully reopen to them, provided, of course, that it does decide to do so. The term “revenge travel” was coined to refer to people who had been frugal during the COVID era and who now plan to splurge their hard-earned cash on an extravagant trip that has been on their wish list for a long time. Japan is still one of the most desired places to visit in the world.
According to Tam, one of the co-founders of Arry, “there is a huge interest in going back to Japan.” “I have a feeling that things are going to pick up.”