Why Expecting Japan’s Reopening to Tourism Before Summer 2022 at Best is Unrealistic
The Omicron variant could not appear at the worst time at the end of November 2021! Japan’s borders were indeed (shortly) reopened to students and short-term business trips on November 8 and the Japanese government was preparing to test the reopening to groups starting late December / January in anticipation of the resuming of international tourism. At the times, a significant upturn could even be expected as soon as this early spring, for the cherry trees blooming after 2 years of missing the sakura 🌸.
However, only 17 days later and as soon as the new variant was identified, the recently elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida slammed shut the country’s borders. Needless to say it was a world-shattering news, especially to students who were anticipating the end of an unfair and wearing 20 months wait.
Japan was eventually hit by the 6th Covid wave in early January, in the biggest blow since the beginning of the pandemics as much as by the number of cases (until it was officially decided to drastically reduce the number of tests!) as the unprecedented death rate. As everywhere in the world, the peak was reached in mid-February and the trend has been going downward ever since. The quasi-state of emergency, both cautious and useless, that was extended in 18 of the most affected prefectures (including Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka) finally ended on March 20 and Japan reopened its borders to all visas except tourism on March 1rst.
It is therefore the occasion for Kanpai to make the inventory of the current situation, in view of the resuming of international tourism toward the archipelago.
😠 Domestic criticism and lobbying have already allowed a significant easing of the restrictions
It is certainly what tilted the balance in favor of the reopening. Whereas Japan has been largely criticized overseas for its reluctance to reopen, within the country it was not even a concern until a short time ago. When newspapers or television reports have started to tackle the international students’ problem in the beginning of winter, many Japanese discovered that they were still barred from entering the country!
That’s what spurred a snowball effect: universities and academics spoke up, the Japan Business Federation Keidanren increased its lobbying, and when the public opinion started to (skittishly) consider a gradual reopening, the government had no other choice than to significantly relax the restrictions.
Consequently, all visas except tourists were granted access to Japan again: students, business (short and long term) and even the working holidays visas as long as they have a sponsor, as well as spouses and parents on case by case bases. The nonsensical entry timeline according to the Certificate of Eligibility (required to definitely get a visa) issuance date was also abandoned. Granted visas were even prolonged so that students could serenely prepare their arrival. As for the quarantine, it was reduced to 3 days with a negative PCR test, and it is not required for travelers who received three vaccine doses and come from countries deemed safe (including the U.S.). Lastly, a unique website was set up to centralize all inquiries, so as to avoid contacting multiple ministries, and is expected to provide an answer within 1 to 2 days.
To sum it up, a great, long-awaited improvement!
Limitations are however still in place with a daily cap of 5,000 entries on the Japanese territory. Besides, this maximum includes Japanese nationals returning from overseas, as they could always leave and come back in the country as they pleased (for studying, work, tourism, honey moon…) as well as foreign residents who temporarily left Japan, for example to meet their family in their home countries.
📈 Gradual speeding-up of the reopening
The Keidanren still complained about the insufficient easing, but 2 days only after the long-awaited reopening date, Fumio Kishida quickly announced a new daily cap. It would be raised to 7,000 on March 14, including 1,000 daily entries specifically allotted to students then to 10,000 from April 10 and it is likely that this capacity is bound to increase on a regular basis. Moreover on April 5, Hiroshige Seko (the ruling party's secretary-general) stated that the cap was not significant inasmuch as local contamination was already high.
Such increase will be necessary anyway, as the official estimates evaluated that about 400,000 foreigners were put on hold for 2 years (including 170,000 students), and even if many of them have quite logically given up their project in the meantime, several months will be necessary to absorb them all, knowing that the cap does not concern only foreigners. Therefore, with a 1,000 students quota per day, provided it is met every day, the process would take until August.
On February 25, a few days after the announcement, 160,000 entry requests had already been made. It is therefore easy to imagine that a large part of the 400,000 visas holders will be admitted by the beginning of summer. On April 12, the Minister of Education Shinsuke Suematsu provided an update on the situation: since March 1 and the reopening to visas holders, 30,000 students have arrived in Japan, and the goal of accepting all the remaining awaiting students (about 110,00 according to the government’s figures) by May is likely to be met.
As a comparison, before the Corona crisis, a total of about 150,000 travelers entered in Japan daily!
Another (very) good news: the influential Keidanren continued to pressure and emphasized its demands as soon as March 8, by requesting that the virus be considered endemic and urging the government to draw a crisis recovery plan and reopen the borders to all, including tourists!
🗳 Domestic hurdles: the possible come back of GoTo Travel and July’s election
Since its premature stop at the end of 2020, the come back of GoTo Travel is an old chestnut that everyone outside Japan wish to not hear about anymore. Indeed, this domestic tourism subsidy campaign is bound to delay the international tourism return on the archipelago:
So, will it resume, or not? And when? The campaign has been continually postponed for more than a year due to the successive Covid waves, and the last installment is no exception: its start expected in early 2022 was foiled by Omicron. In the meantime, GoTo Travel was replaced by local initiatives in which municipalities and prefectures give subsidies to domestic travels, to compensate the wait for the financial income from outside.
Simultaneously, on the political side, Japan is preparing for the House of Councilors election (the Parliament’s upper house) scheduled in July. It is an important milestone for consolidating the new Kishida Cabinet as there will be no other major election before 2025. Thus, it would be surprising that the current Prime Minister announced a reopening with much fanfare by then, as he needs to please a rather elderly and nationalistic electorate, even though covert negotiations are currently happening with the country’s partners.
🇺🇦 Vigilance regarding the war in Ukraine
Many seasoned observers had been considering the possibility for several months, but this early 2022’s « surprise » came up in a world already drained by 2 years of Coronavirus 🦠 pandemic. This conflict, whose length or outcome is hard to prognosticate, is a disaster for Ukraine, and it also has important consequences on the rest of the world, and especially on the transportation industry.
As a matter of fact, since late February, Russia’s airspace has become difficult if not forbidden to flight ✈️ for many airlines (with European, Japanese and American airlines the most affected due to their countries’ opposition to Vladimir Putin). Flight companies have consequently adapted their offers:
- AirFrance interrupted France-Japan flights on February 28, but they resumed the following day after rerouting on the southern route, which is longer by 2 hours (direct flights duration is now about 12:30 to 13:30 depending on the direction of flight and the winds).
- JAL and ANA were not so prompt and waited until March 3 to cancel all their flights, especially to Paris, and dispatched flights between Haneda and Europe on other routes.
Besides these 3 airlines operating direct flights, the many other airlines serving Japan with a stopover are less impacted (such as Qatar or Etihad). Needless to say that Aeroflot, the already controversial Russian national company is now out of the traveling scope.
For all companies however, the price of the round-trip ticket is likely to take off (!), due to the extended flight duration and especially to the flare up of kerosene cost, another major consequence of the war.
🦠 Health situation: 3rd vaccine dose and potential new Covid variants
Without much surprise, and for various reasons we already explained several times on Kanpai, Japan is late again in its vaccination roll-out: in early March the 3rd dose was injected to only 20% of the population. The precondition for mass tourism to be allowed on the archipelago is an optimal protection, which will not be reached before the end of spring:
Moreover and despite the fact that Omicron affected more people than all the previous variants all-together, including in Japan, the threat of a new Coronavirus type is certainly still pending. As a matter of fact, the strain BA.2 was already on the verge of being predominant in European countries' sequencing and in many other places, including Tokyo (not taking into account other strains such as XD / XE / “Deltacron").
The number of cases seemed to have reached a peak in many countries, sometimes an occasional kickback, and financially exhausted governments are increasingly considering Covid-19 an endemic disease. Is it compatible with a relaxing of the sanitary measures? Only time can tell, but as countries reopened to international tourism, the triple vaccination and negative PCR test are prerequisites to traveling in most of the cases.
An important request of the Japanese tourist industry lobby is also the withdrawal of an additional PCR testing at the landing airport in Japan, a sticking point as this obligation generates long waiting lines (up to 5 hours to exit Narita) that are unsuitable for a come back of mass tourism.
On April 15, Shigeru Omi, overseer of a government panel health experts and top adviser on COVID-19 pandemic in Japan, declared that stopping or closing all social activities or places was not necessary anymore as Omicron's symptoms were less severe than the previous variants’, a statement radically different from what he said for 2 years. According to Omi, the pandemic entered a new phase in Japan and the population got used to living with the virus. He added: "It's hard to gain public understanding and cooperation if we continue to focus on measures just to reduce the number of infected people." He thinks that the number of cases in Japan will probably continue to rise with the Golden Week, with a peak of severe cases in June when the effects of the booster dose will start to fade in the elderly population, and before a likely decrease.
🇯🇵 Tourists allowed under conditions from this summer?
Fortunately, the trend is to the reopening both on international and domestic levels. However, as we explained in a previous article, Japan will probably be the last to do it... Indeed, the countries that are still closed to tourism are only a quasi-literal handful: China, North-Korea, Libya, Syria, Turkmenistan, Yemen… and Japan. You don’t necessarily want to be part of those "happy few"!
Moreover, on April 8, Fumio Kishida announced in a press conference that there were no schedule for the come back of international tourists in Japan, whereas the country was undergoing the second week of a slight raise in Covid contamination, especially among the 20-30 years old. Kishida also added that the decision would be made regarding reopening to tourism after comparing the various steps endeavored by the other countries in their borders restrictions lift off. As most of the countries in the world have completely reopened, let’s take it is a positive announcement.
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Considering all the elements listed above and at the time of writing, here is what we can foresee about the resuming of international tourism in Japan:
- No announcement before July, most likely;
- A reopening in August at best;
- Entry allowed only from countries deemed safe / green regarding their situation with Covid at a given point in time;
- Possible daily entry caps, however significantly higher than now;
- Entry possible only for travelers who received 3 vaccine doses (Japan does not considerate a Covid infection equivalent to vaccine) and with a negative PCR test made less than 48 or 72 hours before arrival;
- A travel insurance, which is likely to be mandatory;
- No quarantine (those logistical aspects would not be sustainable anyway), and it is one of the main reasons of a late reopening.
Naturally, the situation can quickly swing a way or the other but we hope that it will continue in the right direction for an easy and fast resuming of tourism travels.
As usual, we will communicate on the next evolution, but what is certain is that we are the closer as can be to the return of international tourists in Japan, even though the wait will certainly last several month!