TOKYO — Nearly two and a half years after it imposed some of the world’s strictest pandemic-related border controls, Japan said on Thursday it would finally welcome most tourists next month as it aims to revive its once lucrative travel industry.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is in New York for the UN General Assembly, said Japan would lift numerical limits on daily arrivals on Oct. 11 and allow tourists — who were forced to arrange visits and receive visas through travel agents — freely. to move across the country.
“People around the world are asking, ‘When can we travel to Japan?'” Mr Kishida said at a reception, according to public broadcaster NHK. “Now I hope they make plans to visit Japan and taste Japanese cuisine.”
The announcement came as two other major Asian holdouts were also moving to lift some of their latest border restrictions. Taiwan said Thursday it would end a mandatory three-day quarantine for visitors by October 13 at the earliest. Hong Kong was set to announce a similar move on Friday, the biggest step toward living with Covid-19.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Japan quickly slammed its borders, shutting out virtually everyone who was not a citizen. However, reopening the borders has been a lengthy process, taking steps long after almost all other major countries had fully reopened.
The decision to open the borders comes as Covid cases in Japan have fallen to their lowest number in months and the country’s currency is hovering around its weakest level against the dollar in nearly a quarter of a century.
While the yen’s decline was painful for domestic consumers, the government hopes it will make Japan an attractive destination for tourists seeking a bargain. On Friday, the yen – which has fallen more than 20 percent in the past year – hovered around 142 against the dollar.
Over the past decade, international tourism has become an increasingly important industry for Japan, which heavily promoted travel to the country in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, originally scheduled for August 2020 but held a year later.
More than 30 million international tourists visited Japan in 2019, about three times as many as six years earlier, according to government data.
When the pandemic hit, the country banned virtually all travel from abroad, making it nearly impossible to get a visa for any purpose, including business. Hundreds of thousands of foreign residents who had built lives in the country were locked out for months, and couples and families separated.
After vaccinations became available, the country began a tentative reopening. Limited travel for business and study resumed this spring. However, tourism was largely limited to people participating in strictly controlled package tours.
Even as business leaders pressured the government to reopen fully, arguing that Japan was harming itself by lagging behind the rest of the Group of 7 developed countries in lifting restrictions, officials moved slowly, and polls showed support for the tight boundaries.
Some critics said the government’s decision to maintain the restrictions was political, not science, and warned that Japan was descending into the kind of isolation that had characterized earlier periods of its history.
Now, the reopening could unleash a rush of pent-up travel demand, which could provide a much-needed shock to the country’s hard-hit travel and hospitality sectors.
But inbound tourism is unlikely to reach prepandemic levels anytime soon. Chinese tourists, who accounted for about 30 percent of inbound tourism in 2019, are severely limited in their ability to travel under Beijing’s strict anti-covid policies. China is the last major country to keep its borders largely closed in an effort to eradicate the virus.
Domestically, Japan plans to encourage tourism by offering government-subsidized discounts to Japanese residents for hotels, restaurants and certain forms of entertainment, Mr Kishida said. It’s a revival of a plan known as “Go to Travel” that its predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, introduced in an effort to help domestic tourism after it was wiped out in the early months of the pandemic.
Travelers wishing to enter Japan must prove that they have received three injections of a coronavirus vaccine or provide evidence of a negative test taken no more than 72 hours before departing for Japan.
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