Is Japan open to travelers? Some residents are not ready to reopen borders

As countries in Asia reopen to international travelers, Japan – one of the continent’s most popular destinations – remains firmly closed.

That could change soon. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced Thursday at a news conference in London that Japan will ease border controls in June.

Residents often celebrate the easing of border restrictions related to the pandemic, but some in Japan say they are fine with keeping the measures in place.

Even before the pandemic, many residents preferred to travel within the country, with domestic tourism totaling 21.9 trillion yen ($167 billion) in 2019, according to the government-backed Japan Tourism Agency.

While Japanese people are currently allowed to travel abroad, many “don’t want to go abroad” and choose to “travel within the country,” said Dai Miyamoto, founder of travel agency Japan Localized.

Izumi Mikami, Senior Executive Director of Japan Space Systems, visited the island of Kyushu and the island of Okinawa, two tourist hotspots before the pandemic. He said he felt safer with fewer tourists around.

Some people are enjoying the opportunity to be outdoors after spending a lot of time at home.

Shogo Morishige, a college student, made several ski trips to Nagano – the prefecture that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics – and said it was “surprisingly crowded” with locals.

“Everyone like us hasn’t traveled in a long time… Right now, it’s almost as if [Covid-19] it’s not really here,” said Morishige. “I don’t think anyone is afraid of that anymore.”

Others ventured into new destinations.

“After moving to Yamagata Prefecture, I started going to places I wouldn’t normally go, like ski resorts… hot springs in the mountains and aquariums and sandy beaches,” said Shion Ichikawa, a risk management official at line internet company.

The rides are changing

International travelers to Japan have dropped from nearly 32 million in 2019 to just 250,000 in 2021, according to Japan’s National Tourism Organization.

With a clientele of almost all locals, some tour companies have redesigned their tours to suit local interests.

Japanese travelers avoid visiting big cities and are opting for outdoor experiences they can “discover on foot,” Miyamoto said. So Japan Localized — which catered its tours to English-speaking foreigners before the pandemic — collaborated with local tour company Mai Mai Kyoto and Mai Mai Tokyo to provide walking tours in Japanese.

People across Japan are also spending time at camps and onsen – or hot springs — spas, said Lee Xian Jie, lead developer at tourism company Craft Tabby.

“The camps have become very popular,” he said. “Caravan rentals and outdoor equipment sales are doing very well because people are going outdoors a lot more.”

Luxury onsens popular with young people “are doing really well” but traditional onsens are suffering as seniors are “very scared of Covid” and don’t go out much, Lee said.

Craft Tabby used to operate walking and cycling tours in Kyoto, but transitioned online when the pandemic hit. As countries reopen their borders, “online tours are not doing well” and participation “has dropped to almost zero,” Lee said.

Tourist appetites are changing and people are looking for “niche” activities in “rural areas where it’s not as densely populated,” he said.

Lee now lives south of Kyoto in a village called Ryujinmura and plans to operate tours in the rural town once tourists return.

“We need to think about tours and activities here where people can explore new things,” he added.

‘Tourism Too Much’

Japan welcomed nearly 32 million international visitors in 2019 – up from 6.8 million just ten years earlier, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.

The rapid increase in tourists has meant that major attractions such as the culturally rich city of Kyoto have struggled with over-tourism.

Kyoto residents are now saying “silence is back,” said Miyamoto, who has reported instances of foreign tourists talking loudly and being discourteous to locals.

Similarly, Lee said that “a lot of people who were quite upset about Kyoto’s overtourism” are now saying “it looks like Kyoto was 20 years ago – good old Kyoto”.

But this may be coming to an end.

Is Japan ready to move forward?

Prime Minister Kishida’s announcement may not be good news for part of the Japanese population.

More than 65% of respondents in a recent survey by Japanese broadcaster NHK said they agreed with the border measures or believed they should be tightened, according to The New York Times.

Local reports indicate that international travelers may need multiple Covid-19 tests and a tour booking to get in, though the JNTO told CNBC it has yet to hear from this. Still, that might not be enough to pacify some residents.

Spending by foreign visitors contributes less than 5% to Japan’s overall gross domestic product, so “it’s not necessarily surprising that the government makes decisions prioritizing” other industries, said Shintaro Okuno, partner and president of Bain & Company Japan, referring to the reason why the country was closed.

Women wearing kimonos tie “omikuji” lucky strips outside Yasaka Shrine during the Golden Week holidays in Kyoto, Japan, on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

Kosuke Okahara | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The recent decision is likely to be more unpopular with Japan’s elderly citizens, Ichikawa said. Nearly 1 in 3 is over 65, making Japan home to the highest percentage of seniors in the world, according to research organization PRB.

“Older people tend to be more prejudiced than younger people that Covid-19 is brought on by foreigners,” Ichikawa said. “It’s understandable that in Japan – a country of the elderly – politicians must tighten the borders to protect them physically and psychologically.”

When the pandemic was at its height, the Japanese were even suspicious of people from other parts of Japan who visited their hometowns.

“I’ve seen signs at public parks and tourist attractions saying ‘no cars outside Wakayama,'” Lee said. “People were very afraid of people outside the city hall.”

However, residents living in cities may feel differently.

“Japan is very strict and conservative” in controlling Covid-19, said Mikami, who lives in Tokyo.

Miyako Komai, a teacher who lives in Tokyo, said she is ready to move on.

“We need to invite more foreigners” so Japan’s economy can recover, she said. “I don’t agree that we want the measures to be reinforced… We need to start living a normal life.”

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