Only a trickle of tourists are visiting Japan two months after the government announced it would reopen borders that had been largely closed to foreign travelers for two years under coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
Analysts said Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong’s insistence on maintaining coronavirus pandemic restrictions, such as quarantines and testing in some jurisdictions, had made the region a global outlier and slowed its tourism recovery.
“There is a strong contrast now with [parts of] Asia in a different league to the rest of the world,” said Brendan Sobie, a travel industry analyst at Sobie Aviation.
Sobie added that tourism in Southeast and South Asia had recovered more quickly as countries there had already lifted restrictions.
“Many tourists have not returned to the region and have previously booked their summer holidays [restrictions started lifting]so there is a delay in the return of tourists,” he said.
Although Japan reopened its borders in June, it has struggled to attract foreign visitors with strict travel guidelines that require visitors to be accompanied by a guide “from entry to departure.”
The reopening also coincided with the country’s largest coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic, which was driven by the highly transmissible BA.5 Omicron subvariant. Japan’s daily Covid cases have fallen below 200,000 this week, after reaching 250,000 infections for the first time last week.
Despite a sharp fall in the yen, only 120,400 visitors entered Japan in June, down from May and April when borders were still closed, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.
Of those visitors, only 252 were tourists. Nearly 32 million tourists visited Japan in 2019.
Clara Pellham, director of sales at US luxury tour operator TCS World Travel, said there was very little demand for her escorted private jet tour of major cities across Japan, largely because of confusion over directions.
“Consumers and even travel advisors are not clear about . . . what other restrictions they might encounter once they get to Japan,” Pelham said.
“Japan will not be a competitive destination until some of those restrictions are lifted.”
Official numbers, however, may not give a full picture of the number of overseas visitors who have traveled to Japan, as the government has granted short-term visas to foreign nationals for “special exceptional circumstances”, such as weddings and funerals.
While China’s borders are still closed, Hong Kong began allowing international tourists to visit in May but maintained a minimum seven-day quarantine, which was shortened to three days last week. The lockdown has crushed the travel industry and plunged the Chinese mainland’s economy back into recession.
“Our interior [tourism] the team is in hibernation mode. We have skeleton staff to handle incoming travelers,” said Lily Agonoy, managing director of Jebsen Holidays in Hong Kong. “Why would tourists come to Hong Kong if they have to be quarantined? Normally tourists only come for four to five days.”
South Korea is the “most open” of North Asian destinations, according to travel analyst Sobie, but Incheon Airport recorded just 17 percent of passenger traffic compared to 2019 in the second quarter.
All passengers to South Korea are required to take a PCR test within 24 hours of arrival.
In an effort to boost tourist numbers, Seoul city authorities announced this month that tourists from Japan, Taiwan and Macau will be temporarily allowed visa-free entry into South Korea for the rest of August. The average wait for a Japanese tourist to obtain a Korean tourist visa is three to four weeks.
In April, Korea lifted all remaining social distancing measures and downgraded Covid-19 to a “class 2” disease, alongside conditions such as tuberculosis and cholera.