With countries across Asia reopening to international travelers, Japan – one of the continent’s most popular destinations – remains tightly closed.
That may change soon. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced Thursday at a press conference in London that Japan will ease border controls in June.
Locals often celebrate the easing of border restrictions related to the epidemic, but some in Japan say they are fine with 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 government support. Japan Tourism Agency.
Dai Miyamoto, founder of the travel agency, said that although Japanese people are currently allowed to travel abroad, many “don’t want to go abroad” and choose to “travel within the country” instead. Translated in Japan.
Izumi Mikami, CEO of Japan Space Systems, visited Kyushu Island and Okinawa Island, two important tourist areas before the pandemic. He said he felt safer with fewer tourists around.
Some people take the opportunity to take a walk in the fresh air after spending a lot of time at home.
Shogo Morishige, a college student, has made multiple 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 for a long time… right now, it’s as if [Covid-19] Not really here, Morishige said. “I don’t think anyone is afraid of that anymore.”
Others ventured to new destinations.
“After moving to Yamagata Prefecture, I started going to places I wouldn’t normally go to, like ski resorts…hot springs in the mountains, fishponds, and sandy beaches,” said Shion Ichikawa, Risk Management Officer for Internet Line company, Shion Ichikawa.
The number of international travelers to Japan decreased from about 32 million in 2019 to Only 250,000 in 2021according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.
With a clientele of nearly all locals, some tour companies have redesigned their tours to match local interests.
Miyamoto said Japanese travelers shy away from visiting big cities and opt for outdoor experiences that they can “discover on foot.” So Japan Localized – which offered its tours to English-speaking foreigners before the pandemic – teamed up with a local tour company My my Kyoto and My Mai Tokyo to offer Japanese-language walking tours.
People all over Japan also spend time at camping sites and onsen – or Hot Springs – Spas, said Li Xianjie, senior developer at the tour company Craft Tabby.
“The camps are becoming very popular,” he said. “Caravan rentals and outdoor equipment sales are doing very well because people go outside a lot.”
Luxurious onesense popular with young people is “doing really well,” he told me, but traditional people are suffering because older people are “too afraid of Covid” and don’t get out much.
Craft Tabby used to run walking and cycling tours in Kyoto, but she moved online when the pandemic hit. With countries reopening their borders, “online tours haven’t been working well” and participation has dropped to almost zero, Lee said.
He said tourists’ appetites are changing and people are looking for “specialized” activities in “rural areas where there is no high population density”.
Lee now lives south of Kyoto in a village called Ryuginmura and plans to take tours of the rural city once the tourists return.
“We need to think about tours and activities here where people can explore new things,” he added.
Japan welcomed nearly 32 million international visitors in 2019 – up from just 6.8 million just ten years ago, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
The rapid increase in the number of tourists has caused major attractions, such as the culturally rich city of Kyoto, to suffer with overtourism.
Kyoto residents now said “silence has returned,” said Miyamoto, who recounted instances where foreign tourists spoke loudly and were rude to locals.
Likewise, Lee said, “A lot of people who were utterly upset about Kyoto’s over-tourism” are now saying “it feels 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 welcome news to segments of the Japanese people.
More than 65% of respondents in a recent survey by Japanese broadcaster NHK said they agreed with the border measures or thought they should be strengthened, according to New York times.
Sweetened Reports indicate International travelers may need to take multiple tests for Covid-19 and book a combined tour to get in, though JNTO told CNBC they haven’t had any word on this yet. However, this may not be enough to calm some residents.
Shintaro Okono, partner and chairman of Bain & Company Japan, said, referring to why the country has remained closed.
Women wear kimono-tie ‘omikoji’ outside Yasaka Shrine during the Golden Week holiday in Kyoto, Japan, Tuesday, May 3, 2022.
Kosuke Okahara | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Ishikawa said the latest decision is likely to be unpopular with elderly Japanese citizens. Nearly 1 in 3 are over the age of 65, making Japan is home to the largest proportion of elderly people in the worldAccording to the research organization PRB.
“Old people tend to be more prejudiced than young people because Covid-19 comes from foreigners,” Ichikawa said. “It is understood that in Japan – the country of the elderly – politicians must tighten boundaries to protect them both physically and psychologically.”
When the epidemic was at its height, the Japanese were wary even of people from other parts of Japan visiting their hometowns.
“I saw signs in parks and tourist attractions that said ‘No cars outside of Wakayama,'” he told me. “People were very afraid of others outside of the prefecture.”
However, residents who live in cities may feel differently.
Mikami, who is based in Tokyo, said “Japan is very strict and conservative” in controlling Covid-19.
Miyako Kumai, a teacher who lives in Tokyo, said she is ready to move on.
“We need to invite more foreigners” so that the Japanese economy can recover, she said. “I don’t agree that we want to step up measures… we need to start living a normal life.”
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