Relief tinged with unease as Japan reopens after two ‘really tough’ years | Japan

After more than two years of near-total isolation, Japan has reopened its borders to overseas visitors – but the road back to the pre-Covid tourism boom could be long and bumpy.

Last week, the country lifted some of the strictest pandemic border controls in the world when it removed a 50,000 daily cap on arrivals, reinstated waivers for short-term visas and dropped a rule requiring tourists to visit as part of group tours.

The reopening could not have come quickly enough for the world’s third-biggest economy, already reeling from the damage inflicted by coronavirus.

The prime minister, Fumio Kishida, is pinning his hopes on free-spending visitors taking advantage of a weak yen, which recently reached a 32-year low against the dollar, to boost businesses and resurrect Japan’s reputation as one of the world’s must-see countries.

In Gion, a popular neighbourhood in Kyoto, local shop owners greeted the return of tourists with a mixture of optimism and trepidation.

“The last couple of years have been really tough,” said Hiroko Inoue, the owner of Furouan, a kimono shop. “There were no foreign visitors and very few Japanese tourists. My guess is that sales were less than 1% of those before Covid-19.

“When I heard the government announcement about Japan reopening, I was really happy, but it was far too late.”

Just over 500,000 foreign visitors have come to Japan so far this year – a fraction of the record 31.8 million who arrived in 2019 – while the pandemic forced the government to abandon its goal of 40 million visitors by 2020, the year the Tokyo Olympics was pushed back a year as the virus raged across the globe.

While TV reports filmed travellers arriving at airports and milling around popular districts of Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan is poorly prepared for a sudden influx of visitors.

Kishida wants to attract ¥5 trillion (£30bn) in tourism-generated spending a year, but the Nomura Research Institute estimates that inbound travel will generate a much lower ¥2.1tn next year, and won’t exceed pre-Covid levels until 2025.

Hotel employment fell by 22% between 2019 and 2021, according to government data, and other sectors that rely on tourism say shortages of staff and supply chain disruption mean they are unable to cope with a sharp rise in visitor numbers.

About half of the 260 shops and restaurants at Narita, Japan’s biggest international airport, remain shuttered. More than 70% of hotels said they did not have enough full-time employees in August, up from about 27% a year earlier, according to market research firm Teikoku Databank.

The tourism minister, Tetsuo Saito, described the 11 October reopening as a “landmark day for the tourism sector”. But industry experts do not expect a return to pre-pandemic bakugai [explosive buying] days until China relaxes its “zero-Covid” policy, which imposes tight restrictions on outward travel. About a third of foreign visitors to Japan in 2019 were Chinese.

Until then, shops, restaurants and other businesses deprived of the tourist yen will be depending on travellers from other parts of Asia, Europe and North America.

People such as Ekram Faiz, a Malaysian who was visiting Gion with a friend. “I bought my ticket to Japan in 2020 so I’ve been waiting for two years,” said Faiz, a first-time visitor to Japan whose itinerary covered the hardy tourist perennials of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. “I’m looking forward to experiencing Japanese culture, trying the local cuisine.”

The cafe inside Nishio, which sells traditional Kyoto sweets, has been practically empty throughout the pandemic, according to a member of staff who asked not to be named. “It felt really strange,” he said. “But our biggest problem now is finding enough staff to cope with a rise in the number of foreign customers.”

A sign in the Gion district of Kyoto warns visitors not to photograph on private roads.
A sign in the Gion district of Kyoto warns visitors not to photograph on private roads. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

Not everyone in Gion is happy about the prospect of hordes of tourists back on their doorstep. Multilingual signs ask visitors not to spread out on the street in case they block traffic, and to refrain from touching or photographing private property. Others remind them not to approach maiko and geiko traditional entertainers for selfies – a major problem before the pandemic.

Travellers to Japan must now show proof they have either had three Covid-19 vaccinations or return a negative test result within 72 hours of departure. There is concern, though, that the end of travel restrictions could lead to friction over another pandemic measure Japan is reluctant to abandon: mask-wearing.

The government has recommended that face coverings are no longer required outside, but the advice has largely been ignored. Earlier this month, the government approved a change to regulations to allow hoteliers to turn away guests who refuse to comply with mask-wearing and infection control measures during any future Covid-19 outbreak.

One shop worker in Gion suggested tourists without masks would be given the benefit of the doubt. “I’d rather they wore masks, but if they’re coming here to spend money it’s going to be awkward if we insist that they wear them,” he said.

That won’t be an issue for Andre Hansmann, a German tourist who had been in Japan for less than a day. While he and two friends were maskless as they explored the back alleys of Gion, he said he would fall in line with local customs when indoors. “We don’t mind wearing masks at all … we still wear them in certain places in Germany, so it’s not a problem.”

Japan faced widespread criticism over its decision to impose some of the strictest travel restrictions in the world. “Locked out” international couples were forced to live apart, exchange students had to put their plans on hold or abandon their dream of studying in Japan, and some tourists complained when they saw Japanese citizens freely visiting countries that had already reopened their borders.

“I don’t think border closures worked as a measure to prevent Covid-19,” said Hansmann, who had finally made it to Japan after his original booking was cancelled during the pandemic. “As soon as we heard that Japan was reopening, we booked another flight immediately. We were so excited when we woke up in Kyoto this morning.”

Inoue is looking forward to getting back to the business of selling vintage kimonos at her shop, located inside a 100-year-old building on Gion’s main drag. “Things can only improve, and I’m looking forward to giving foreign visitors a warm welcome,” she said. “I just hope that they follow the rules.”


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