As soon as news broke that Japan would finally welcome back overseas tourists from Friday, Tyler Palma rushed to arrange a 12-day pop culture tour across the country for an American family from Seattle.
The past two years of Covid-19 lockdowns have been brutal for Palma, who heads operations at Japan travel specialist Inside Travel Group, which halved its 200-strong workforce after the country’s borders were closed.
But relief may be limited: Japan’s new travel guidelines restrict entry to escorted visitors only. The rules have sparked chaos and confusion just as Asia’s largest advanced economy seeks to resuscitate its $36bn tourism market. Some of the country’s largest hotels have yet to book reservations from overseas tourists.
“We’re looking at welcoming our first clients based on the new travel rules,” Palma said. “We simply don’t have much clarity on what the Japanese government is planning nor how they are making decisions about when to allow tourists in more generally.”
Japan is among one of the last countries even in Asia to resume overseas tourism, but its reopening is tightly restricted, with individual travellers required to be escorted by a 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 sanitising hands. But it also means travel agencies have to rush to hire back the English-speaking guides they made redundant during the pandemic.
Business leaders have criticised the government’s tight border controls, with some even calling it “xenophobic”. But Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Covid strategy has been popular with voters. Vaccination rates are high and new cases nationwide have fallen below 20,000 a day.
Still, analysts said a rebound in foreign tourism was critical to reviving Japan’s economy, which has come under pressure from the soaring cost of commodities 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 estimated that the border easing for tourists and long-term visitors could add more than 3 per cent to Japan’s nominal gross domestic next year. The number of foreign visitors to Japan reached a record 31.9mn in 2019.
The industry would benefit, too, from a weaker yen, which touched a 20-year-low against the dollar this week.
But tourism industry executives said the government needed to release a clear plan explaining when the country would open up to all tourists so they could make investment decisions on hiring and training staff.
Kishida announced that Japan would allow 20,000 visitors to enter a day, but it was only on Tuesday that the government released specific guidelines on what kind of tourists would be permitted.
“Since the situation changes rapidly, people on the ground are not catching up with political decisions,” said Fumiko Kato, the chief executive of WAmazing, a start-up providing services to foreign tourists in Japan.
According to the new guidelines, tourists will be advised to wear masks in most settings and buy insurance to cover medical costs in case they test positive for Covid. If a visitor tests positive, the tour will not be cancelled but those in close contact will be separated from the group.
The tour can consist of just one person, and fully vaccinated visitors from countries with low Covid infection rates will be exempt from testing and quarantine after entering the country. All tourists also need to apply for a visa.
Shinya Kurosawa, chief executive of JTB Global Marketing & Travel, said he expected the number of tourists from the US, Europe and Australia to recover to 2019 levels by the fiscal year ending in March 2024.
“The recovery of the Asian markets will be slower and our biggest concern is China,” Kurosawa said.
China, which accounted for about 30 per cent of Japan’s overseas visitors in 2019, is pursuing a contentious zero-Covid policy that has sealed its international borders.
Even outside of China where Covid restrictions have been lifted, Kurosawa said high commodity prices made it difficult to gauge global travel appetite. “But at least the first step towards a full opening to tourists has been taken,” he said.
At Inside Travel Group, Palma is carefully studying the guidelines and visa procedures to ensure that his first clients — a grandmother with two teenage grandchildren — will be able to land in Tokyo on July 1. But he admits that the stringent restrictions will also require a high degree of flexibility from the Americans.
“They are willing to sort of jump through the hoops of these processes,” Palma said. “They’re willing to come and they will be happy to follow mask guidance and anything advised by the Japanese government.”