‘Dream come true’: Japan reopens to tourists

Japan reopened its doors to tourists Tuesday after two-and-a-half years of tough Covid restrictions, with officials hoping an influx of travellers enticed by a weak yen will boost the economy.

By mid-morning, tourists from Israel, France and Britain were already pouring in.

“It’s a long, long dream come true,” said 69-year-old Adi Bromshtine, a retiree arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda airport from Israel.

“We were planning before Covid and waiting and waiting,” she told AFP.

Itay Galili, a 22-year-old student also arriving from Israel, said he had been closely monitoring the news for word of the border reopening.

“As soon as I heard it’s going to reopen on the 11th, I started planning. Tickets were expensive… but no price (is) too heavy,” he told AFP.

Japan slammed its borders shut early in the pandemic, at one point even barring foreign residents from returning, and has only recently begun cautiously reopening.

In June, it began allowing tourists to visit in groups accompanied by guides, a requirement that was further relaxed to include self-guided package tours.

From Tuesday, visa-free entry resumed for travellers from 68 countries and territories.

Japan is also lifting a cap on the number of arrivals and ending the package tour requirement.

Some rules remain, with tourists required to present either proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test taken three days before departure.

Before Covid, Japan’s government was on track to achieve a goal of 40 million visitors by 2020, the year Tokyo was supposed to host the Summer Olympics.

Japan received a record 31.9 million foreign visitors in 2019, but that plummeted to just 250,000 in 2021.

– Demand soaring –
In Japan, tourists will find a country that is still adhering to many of the health guidelines that helped it to keep pandemic deaths to around 45,500, lower than many other developed economies.

Masks are ubiquitous, and though not mandated by law, parliament is set to pass legislation allowing hotels to deny service to customers who refuse to wear one or observe other health rules.

Masks are worn not only indoors and on public transport, but even outdoors, despite the government saying they are not necessary outside in uncrowded settings.

Hand sanitiser is placed at the entrance of most businesses, while plastic dividers are also often used in restaurants.

Another major change for tourists will be the weakness of the yen, which is hovering around 145 to the dollar, a level not seen for two decades.

The government has already had to intervene once to prop up the currency, and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida cited the yen’s weakness as a factor he hoped would draw tourists when he announced the reopening.

There is certainly no shortage of demand, according to travel agents.

Since the September announcement of the planned reopening, “we’ve been absolutely drowning, we don’t have enough time to deal with all the requests,” said Antoine Chanthavong, of Paris-based travel agency Destination Japan.

Still, for now at least, tickets are not coming cheap, with fuel prices soaring and airlines forced to take circuitous routes to avoid Russian airspace.

And for all the rebound in demand, there is little expectation that tourist numbers will soon reach their 2019 levels.

Before the pandemic, travellers from Hong Kong and China made up 37 percent of all foreign visitors to Japan, and 44 percent of tourism income.

But tough Covid restrictions in China make it unlikely visitors from there will be flocking back to Japan anytime soon. (AFP)