As countries across Asia reopen to international travellers, Japan – one of the continent’s most popular travel destinations – remains firmly closed.
This could change soon. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced at a press conference in London on Thursday that Japan would ease border controls in June.
Locals often celebrate the easing of pandemic-related border restrictions, but some in Japan say they are fine keeping the measures in place.
Even before the pandemic, many locals 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.
Although Japanese people are currently allowed to travel abroad, many “don’t want to go abroad” and instead “want to travel within the country,” said Dai Miyamoto, founder of travel agency Japan Localized.
Izumi Mikami, senior executive director at Japan Space Systems, visited the islands of Kyushu and Okinawa, two pre-pandemic tourist hotspots. He said he feels safer with fewer tourists.
Some people take the opportunity to be outside after spending a lot of time at home.
Shogo Morishige, a university student, took several ski trips to Nagano — the prefecture that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics — and said it was “surprisingly crowded” with locals.
“Anyone like us haven’t traveled in a long time… It’s almost like right now [Covid-19] isn’t really here,” Morishige said. “I don’t think anyone’s scared of it any more.”
Others dared to try new goals.
“After I moved to Yamagata Prefecture, I started going to places I wouldn’t normally go, like ski resorts…mountain hot springs and aquariums and sandy beaches,” said Shion Ichikawa, a risk management officer at an internet company .
The tours change
The number of international travelers to Japan fell from nearly 32 million in 2019 to just 250,000 in 2021, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.
With a clientele made up almost entirely of locals, some tour operators have redesigned their tours to suit local interests.
Japanese travelers have steered away from big cities, opting for outdoor experiences that they can “discover on foot,” Miyamoto said. For example, Japan Localized — which catered to English-speaking foreigners before the pandemic — has partnered with local tour operators Mai Mai Kyoto and Mai Mai Tokyo to offer walking tours in Japanese.
People across Japan also spend time at campgrounds and onsen — or hot spring spas, said Lee Xian Jie, chief developer at travel company Craft Tabby.
“Campsites have become very popular,” he said. “Caravan rentals and outdoor gear sales have done very well because people are getting outside a lot more.”
Luxury onsen, popular with younger people, are “doing quite well,” but traditional onsen are suffering as older people are “pretty scared of Covid” and don’t go out much, Lee said.
Craft Tabby used to run walking and cycling tours in Kyoto but switched online when the pandemic hit. As countries reopen their borders, “online tours have not been doing well” and attendance has “dropped to almost zero,” Lee said.
Tourist appetites are changing, and people are looking for “niche” activities in “rural areas where they’re not as densely populated,” he said.
Lee now lives south of Kyoto in a village called Ryujinmura and plans to conduct tours in the rural town once the tourists return.
“We have to think about tours and activities up here where people can discover new things,” he added.
Japan welcomed nearly 32 million international visitors in 2019 – up from just 6.8 million ten years earlier, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
The rapid increase in tourists has meant that major attractions like the culturally rich city of Kyoto have struggled with overtourism.
Kyoto residents now say that “silence has returned,” said Miyamoto, who recounted incidents of foreign tourists speaking loudly and being rude to locals.
Similarly, Lee said that “a lot of people who were pretty upset about Kyoto’s over-tourism” are now saying, “It feels like Kyoto was 20 years ago — good old Kyoto.”
But that may end.
Is Japan ready to move on?
Prime Minister Kishida’s announcement may not be welcome news for parts of the Japanese population.
More than 65% of respondents in a recent poll conducted by Japanese broadcaster NHK said they agreed with the border measures or believed they should be strengthened, according to the New York Times.
Local reports indicate that international travelers may need multiple Covid-19 tests and a package tour booking to participate, although JNTO told CNBC they have yet to receive word of this. However, this may not be enough to reassure some residents.
Spending from foreign visitors accounts for less than 5% of Japan’s total gross domestic product, so “it’s not exactly surprising that the government is making decisions that prioritize other industries,” said Shintaro Okuno, partner and chairman of Bain & Company Japan, and cited the reasons why the country had remained closed.
Women wearing kimonos tie “omikuji” lucky strips in front of Yasaka Shrine during the Golden Week holiday in Kyoto, Japan, Tuesday May 3, 2022.
Kosuke Okahara | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The latest decision is likely to be the most unpopular among Japan’s senior citizens, Ichikawa said. Almost 1 in 3 is over 65, making Japan home to the largest percentage of elderly people in the world, according to research organization PRB.
“Older people tend to have more prejudices than younger people about Covid-19 being imported by foreigners,” Ichikawa said. “It is understandable that in Japan – a country of the elderly – politicians need to tighten borders to protect them physically and psychologically.”
When the pandemic peaked, the Japanese were even suspicious of people from other parts of Japan visiting their hometowns.
“I’ve seen signs at public parks and tourist attractions that say ‘No cars from outside Wakayama,'” Lee said. “People were quite scared of others from outside the prefecture.”
However, residents living in cities may see it differently.
“Japan is too strict and conservative” in controlling Covid-19, said Mikami, who is based in Tokyo.
Miyako Komai, a teacher living in Tokyo, said she was ready to move on.
“We need to invite more foreigners” for Japan’s economy to recover, she said. “I don’t agree that we want the measures to be stepped up… We need to start living normal lives.”
https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/11/is-japan-open-to-travelers-some-locals-not-ready-to-reopen-borders.html Is Japan open to travelers? Some locals are unwilling to reopen borders