Travel firms in disarray as Japan reopens to foreign tourists

When Japan resumed visa procedures to welcome foreign tourists last week, travel companies were confused by the lack of information on entry procedures and the latest COVID-19 guidance.

The government’s sudden action has angered many in the travel industry as some domestic companies are pulling back on operational tours for incoming tourists amid the prolonged coronavirus pandemic.

A file photo taken on November 17, 2018 shows the streets of Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture filled with foreign tourists. (Kyodo)

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced on May 26 that Japan would reopen to foreign tourists from last Friday, initially limiting eligible tourist arrivals to excursions from 98 countries and regions deemed to have the lowest risk of infection.

The announcement sparked a flurry of inquiries from local and overseas travel agencies.

“Foreign agencies were looking for tour participants spontaneously, so they were confused when they found out that visas would be required,” said a manager from a Japanese inbound tourism company.

Prior to the pandemic, Japan offered visa-free travel to tourists from 68 countries and regions, including the United States, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia.

But border restrictions due to COVID-19 mean “everyone needs a visa” at the moment, according to the Foreign Office.

Many overseas travel agencies were also unaware that in order to apply for a visa, they first had to enter the traveler’s details into the Japanese Ministry of Health’s system, which did not become operational until Thursday midnight.

A South Korean travel agency said his hopes of organizing tours to Japan this month were dashed due to the procedure, as July is now the earliest date he can hold a tour. An appeal to the Japanese embassy in Seoul was also unsuccessful, the report said.

In accordance with the recommendations published by the Japan Tourism Agency last Tuesday, foreign tourists are asked to wear masks and take out insurance to cover medical expenses in case of infection with COVID-19.

When selling or booking tours, travel agencies will need to obtain the consent of the tour participants to comply with the measures, explaining that otherwise they will not be able to participate.

During the tour itself, the agencies will also keep a record of participants’ movements, including the places they have visited and the places they have sat on public transport.

“We need to explain the rules (to visitors to Japan) to prevent problems,” said a spokesman for major Japanese travel agency JTB Corp.

TAS Co., a Tokyo-based company that effectively organizes tours to Japan for Southeast Asians, said it is translating travel agency instructions into local languages ​​to quickly communicate them to potential travelers.

“Although what we can do at the moment is limited, we have received many requests and interest in going to Japan is high,” the company said.

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