As soon as news broke that Japan would finally welcome foreign tourists from Friday, Tyler Palma rushed to organize a 12-day pop culture tour of the country for an American family from Seattle.
The last two years of the Covid-19 lockdown have been brutal for Palma, who heads Japan travel company Inside Travel Group, which has halved its 200-person workforce following the nation’s border closures.
But the relief may be limited: Japan’s new entry rules restrict entry to accompanied visitors only. The rules have caused chaos and confusion just as Asia’s largest advanced economy is trying to revive its $36 billion tourism market. Some of the largest hotels in the country have not yet booked places for foreign tourists.
“We plan to welcome our first customers based on the new travel rules,” Palma said. “We just don’t have clarity on what the Japanese government is planning and how it makes decisions about when to allow tourists in general.”
Japan is one of the latest countries, even in Asia, to have resumed overseas tourism, but its opening is severely limited and individual travelers must be accompanied by a tour guide “from entry to departure.”
Government officials said guided tours make it easier to implement Covid-19 prevention measures, such as wearing face masks and sanitizing hands. But it also means travel agencies must rush to hire back the English-speaking guides they fired during the pandemic.
Business leaders have criticized the government’s tight border controls, some even calling it “xenophobic.” But Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Covid strategy is popular with voters. Vaccination rates are high and the number of new cases nationwide has fallen below 20,000 a day.
However, analysts say a recovery in foreign tourism is critical to reviving Japan’s economy, which has come under pressure from soaring prices for raw materials and other imported goods.
“Japan’s economic recovery from the pandemic has lagged far behind other countries, so easing border measures and welcoming tourists will help the country catch up,” said Takahide Kiuchi, executive economist at the Nomura Research Institute.
He estimates that border relaxation for tourists and long-term visitors could add more than 3% to Japan’s nominal domestic gross income next year. In 2019, the number of foreign visitors to Japan reached a record 31.9 million.
The industry will also benefit from a weaker yen, which hit a 20-year low against the dollar this week.
But tourism industry leaders have said the government needs to release a clear plan explaining when the country will reopen to all tourists so they can make investment decisions…