Is Japan open to travelers? Some locals are not ready to reopen the borders

As the countries of Asia reopen to international travelers, Japan, one of the continent’s most popular destinations, remains firmly closed.

This may soon change. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced at a press conference in London Thursday that Japan will ease border controls in June.

Locals often celebrate the easing of border restrictions linked to the pandemic, but some in Japan say they are fine by 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. Japanese tourism agency.

Although Japanese are currently allowed to travel overseas, many “don’t want to go overseas” and choose instead to “travel within the country,” said Dai Miyamoto, the travel agency’s founder. Localized Japan.

Izumi Mikami, senior executive director of Japan Space Systems, visited Kyushu Island and Okinawa Island, two tourist hotspots before the pandemic. He said he felt safer with fewer tourists around.

Some people are taking the opportunity to be outdoors after spending a lot of time at home.

Shogo Morishige, a college student, made multiple ski trips to Nagano – the prefecture that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympic Games – and said it was “surprisingly crowded” with locals.

“Everyone like us hasn’t traveled in a long time … Right now, it’s almost as if [Covid-19] it’s not really here, “Morishige said.” I think no one is too afraid of it anymore.

Others have ventured to new destinations.

“After I moved to Yamagata prefecture, I started going to places I wouldn’t normally go, like ski resorts … hot springs in the mountains and aquariums and sandy beaches,” said Shion Ichikawa, a risk management employee. at the Internet Line company.

Tours are changing

International travelers to Japan dropped from nearly 32 million in 2019 to only 250,000 in 2021according to the National Tourism Organization of Japan.

With a clientele of nearly all of the locals, some tour companies have redesigned their tours to suit local interests.

Japanese travelers have moved away from visiting big cities and are opting for outdoor experiences that they can “discover on foot,” said Miyamoto. Then Japan Localized, which organized its tours for English-speaking foreigners before the pandemic, partnered with the local tour company May May Kyoto and Mai Mai Tokyo to offer walking tours in Japanese.

People all over Japan also spend time in campgrounds and onsen – or hot springs – spas, said Lee Xian Jie, chief developer of the Craft Tabby tour company.

“Websites have become very popular,” he said. “The rental of caravans and the sale of outdoor equipment are doing very well because people are going outdoors so much more.”

Luxury onsen popular with young people “are doing pretty well,” but traditional onsen are suffering as seniors are “pretty scared of Covid” and don’t go out much, Lee said.

Craft Tabby used to organize walking and cycling tours in Kyoto, but went online when the pandemic broke out. When countries reopen their borders, “online tours aren’t doing well” and attendance has “dropped to near zero,” Lee said.

Tourists’ appetites are changing and people are looking for “niche” activities in “rural areas where it’s not as densely populated,” he said.

Lee now lives south of Kyoto in a village called Ryujinmura and plans to organize tours of the rural city once the tourists return.

“We have to think about tours and activities here where people can explore new things,” he added.

‘Beyond tourism’

Japan welcomed nearly 32 million international visitors in 2019, up from 6.8 million just a decade earlier, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.

The rapid increase in tourists has caused major attractions, such as the culturally rich city of Kyoto, to struggle with excessive tourism.

Kyoto residents now say “silence has returned,” said Miyamoto, who reported cases in which foreign tourists spoke loudly and were rude to locals.

Likewise, Lee said that “a lot of people who were quite upset by the excessive tourism in Kyoto” now say “it feels like Kyoto was 20 years ago, good old Kyoto”.

But it could end.

Is Japan ready to move forward?

Prime Minister Kishida’s announcement may not be good news for portions of the Japanese population.

More than 65% of respondents in a recent poll by Japanese broadcaster NHK said they agree with border measures or believe they should be strengthened, according to The New York Times.

Local indicate reports International travelers may need multiple Covid-19 tests and a packaged tour booking to get in, though JNTO told CNBC they haven’t heard from this yet. However, this may not be enough to pacify some residents.

Foreign visitor spending contributes less than 5 percent to Japan’s overall gross domestic product, so “it’s not necessarily surprising that the government makes decisions by prioritizing” other sectors, said Shintaro Okuno, partner and president of Bain & Company Japan, referring to why the country was closed.

Kimono-wearing women tie “omikuji” fortune stripes outside Yasaka Shrine during the Golden Week holidays in Kyoto, Japan on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

Kosuke Okahara | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The recent decision is likely to be very unpopular among Japan’s senior citizens, Ichikawa said. Nearly 1 in 3 is over the age of 65 doing Japan is home to the largest percentage of elderly people in the worldaccording to the research organization PRB.

“Older people tend to be more biased than young people about Covid-19 being brought by foreigners,” Ichikawa said. “It is understandable that in Japan, a country of the elderly, politicians have to tighten borders to protect them physically and psychologically.”

When the pandemic was at its peak, the Japanese were even wary of people from other parts of Japan visiting their hometowns.

“I saw signs in public parks and tourist attractions that said ‘no cars from outside Wakayama,’” Lee said. “People were afraid of others outside the prefecture.”

However, residents living in cities may feel differently.

“Japan is too strict and conservative” in controlling Covid-19, said Mikami, who lives in Tokyo.

Miyako Komai, a teacher who lives in Tokyo, said she was ready to move on.

“We need to invite more foreigners” so that the Japanese economy can recover, he said. “I disagree that we want the measures to be strengthened … We need to start living a normal life.”