As the rest of the world opens up, Japan remains closed to tourists

New Zealand is finally open for business. One of the last closed-border hold-outs is now allowing entry for Australian tourists, with visitors from the rest of the world to follow on May 1. This marks the end of a very long wait for people who have been keen to re-establish connections with one of our closest neighbours.

New Zealand took its time. As the rest of the world has moved forward from the pandemic, reopening borders and relaxing restrictions, the Kiwis were cautious. They did things at their own pace.

Their recent reopening, however, is indicative of the world at large right now, where conditions are looking increasingly positive for travellers. Vaccinated Australians can leave our country without special permission. Testing requirements for entry into Australia have been dropped. Europe is preparing for a huge summer of tourism. The vast proportion of countries around the world are now open to us, with few requirements or restrictions.

It feels like the world, collectively, is moving in one direction. Forward. Towards reopening. Towards the new normal.

All, that is, except for Japan.

I know I’m not alone in keeping my eye on Japan. This is a country I love to visit, one that I can’t wait to experience again. To walk the streets of Tokyo, to sit in an izakaya, to wander through a temple, to shop, to eat, to glory, to wonder – it will feel like the world of travel really is back. That the world at large is back.

Only, Japan isn’t playing the game. As it stands today, the country is still closed to tourists, and no plans have been announced to change that. Foreigners can enter, on business visas, as students, or family of residents; however, the millions upon millions of tourists who once visited Japan every year are shut out.

I can’t think of another democratic country in the world that is still closed. There are other outliers of course, most notably China, with its zero-COVID approach that is looking increasingly heavy handed and unhinged, but every other country is either easing its doors opening or throwing them wide.

But not Japan. I’ve heard of Australian travellers hedging their bets on getting back there. July, they’re thinking – head up to Hokkaido, where it’s still nice and cool; it will be open by July. Or plan for next Japanese winter, to hit the snow, when the country will surely be back towards normal.

Right now, however, there are no guarantees.

There has been a gradual loosening of entry restrictions in Japan over the last few months. It was a big deal when business and student visas were reopened – the first time foreigners had been allowed into the country since border closures at the beginning of the pandemic. At first those entrants had to quarantine for a week, and then three days; now, vaccinated arrivals from a host of countries can enter quarantine-free.

Japan’s general ban on entry for nationals of 106 countries was lifted earlier this month. Daily caps on arrivals have been steadily growing. And last week the country began granting entry visas to parents, siblings and grandparents of foreign residents.

These are all signs that the country is working towards a cautious reopening to tourists – though, there’s nothing official just yet. And frankly, it’s not as if Japanese residents are all that keen: a poll held last month found fewer than a third favoured opening borders further. And with a Japanese House of Councillors election due in July, there might not be much appetite for risk from politicians. Maybe it will just stay closed.

As a largely selfish foreigner who really wants to visit his favourite country, this is all pretty frustrating. COVID-19 has spread through Japan, so it’s not like this policy is designed to keep the virus out, in the same way it was for New Zealand, and continues to be so for China. The horse has bolted. The increased risk is likely minimal.

And yet Japan remains closed. It’s being left behind. You have to wonder if travellers will start to give up on it, if those desperate for a holiday in the next few months will look to Europe or North America instead, and book their end-of-year ski trips to Whistler or Courchevel instead of Niseko or Hakuba. Australians are keen, we want to travel – but would you take the extra risk on a place that isn’t even open yet?

Australians made more than 500,000 trips to Japan in 2019. It was our seventh most popular destination, behind only the likes New Zealand, Indonesia, the USA and UK. Still, how much time will we give this place before we start to look for somewhere else?

My feeling is that mid-year travel to Japan is probably off. With those July elections coming up, there’s every chance the country could remain closed to tourists until then.

But people who know Japan truly love Japan, and most will be patient. When the country does eventually reopen it will be seen as a safe and predictable destination, one that’s familiar and yet reliably and excitingly different.

We will still want to go there. I, certainly, will still want to go there. Sooner rather than later would be nice.

Are you hanging out for Japan to reopen? Are you confident enough to book a trip there? And if so, for when? What would you like to do in Japan when it reopens?

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