Japan is open to travel. So why aren’t the tourists coming back?

It’s especially surprising in Japan, which reopened to much fanfare in June 2022, just in time for peak travel season. Between June 10 and July 10, the country welcomed about 1,500 leisure tourists, according to data from Japan’s Immigration Services Agency. It is down 95% from the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.

So what is the reason for the difference? And why are travelers so reluctant to return to a popular destination?

There is no security in numbers

Although Japan can still be discovered, the country now allows recreational tourists to come in organized groups rather than individuals. For many people in the West, they want to volunteer and don’t want to follow a serious journey, which is the problem.

“We don’t have to be babies,” said Melissa Musiker, a New York-based public relations expert who regularly travels to Japan.

Musiker and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times.” The couple had planned to visit again in 2022 when they heard the borders were reopening, but they were frustrated by the restrictions and left.

But they choose a new destination and go to South Korea for their vacation.

“We don’t want to quarantine. That’s a big reason,” said Musiker. “We like to go around and shop and eat expensive sushi.”

A desire for visiting the city over beach vacations has tipped the scales in Seoul’s favor, as has its epidemic of K-dramas.

Yasaka Temple in Kyoto, Japan is always surrounded by tourists and street vendors.

Yasaka Temple in Kyoto, Japan is always surrounded by tourists and street vendors.

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Semi-open is not open

Japan’s visa-free policy isn’t just about visas. The country has mask rules in many places, group tours can be expensive, and Japan requires quarantine upon arrival, making sales more difficult.

Katie Tam is the founder of Arry, a members-only site that helps visitors to Japan score reservations at some of Tokyo’s most sought-after restaurants, such as including Obama-backed Sukiyabashi Jiro and Den’s list of Asia’s best restaurants.

Before the pandemic, many of Arry’s users were Asian tourists – living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore – who visited Japan several times a year or less. fly for a long weekend. Since 2020, however, the group has gone on hiatus.

“We didn’t know it would last long,” he said of what was expected to be a short break. “It was very difficult.”

The few members who are starting to contact Arry about booking, Tam said, are people who can get business travel visas to Japan. Currently, this is the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as visitors, and some people are taking advantage of the lack of public access to get places in the houses. restaurants they cannot book in advance.

There is another piece of good news. Despite the challenges, many of Japan’s best restaurants have performed well amid the pandemic.

“Many of the restaurants we work with are local hubs for customers,” says Tam. On the other hand, this means that these popular places will remain in business as long as visitors can come.

According to the Immigration Services Agency, the two biggest markets for Japanese tourists are currently Thailand and South Korea. But the “number” here is relative – about 400 people from each country have visited Japan since June. Only 150 came from the United States.

Before the epidemic, the narrow streets of Kyoto were full of pilgrims.

Before the epidemic, the narrow streets of Kyoto were full of pilgrims.

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Chinese effect

In 2019, Japan’s largest tourist market was China, with 9.25 million Chinese visitors.

Currently, China is completely isolated from the rest of the world. It has strict quarantine protocols in place for both citizens and foreigners, which imposes restrictions on tourism.

Japan is not the only country that has suffered a major blow from the lack of Chinese tourists. The most popular destinations for Chinese tourists, such as Australia, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea, have stopped making money even though there are billions of tourists who can stay at home.
Tokyo Skytree is the tallest building in Japan.

Tokyo Skytree is the tallest building in Japan.

Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Reuters

Hiroyuki Ami, head of public relations at Tokyo Skytree, said it took until June 27 for the first international tour group to reach the observation deck. The group in question were immigrants from Hong Kong.

The financial city is heavily restricted with a hotel quarantine for returning residents, but it’s easier for tourists to travel from there than mainland China.

“Before Covid, Ami said, “the biggest number (of visitors) was from China, but I don’t see them now.” He confirmed that most of the visitors of Skytree in the past six weeks were local Japanese people on their summer vacations. .

“Just because we have started accepting tourists again, it does not mean that we have received foreign buyers,” he said.

Waiting in the wings

Others are good at the moment and if Japan decides to reopen to single tourists, they will want to come. The term “punishment travel” has been coined to describe people who have saved their money during the Covid era and want to blow it on a big list trip, and Japan remains a favorite destination- list.

“There is a lot of interest to return to Japan,” said Tam, Arry’s founder. “I think it’s going to increase.”

CNN’s Kathleen Benoza in Tokyo gave the report.

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