It’s been just a year since Japan reopened its borders to international travel after the pandemic. But tourism has rebounded in ways almost no one could have predicted, setting up a potentially record-breaking 2024.
“There was no bigger crisis in Japanese tourism than the pandemic,” says Itsuo Okada, a veteran tour guide better known as Samurai Joe.
At 94, Okada has seen it all — World War II, recessions, natural disasters and pandemics. Every time, tourism has returned. But Okada says he was surprised by the speed of the recovery this time. It was as if someone turned on a light switch.
“We’re very happy to have visitors back,” he says.
Japan’s tourism comeback is one of the travel industry’s most unexpected stories of 2023. It’s remarkable, considering the length of the shutdown and Japan’s distance from some of its target international markets, like the United States (it’s a 14-hour flight from New York to Tokyo).
But if you’re interested in visiting Japan soon, there are a few things you need to know before you go. And there have been some significant changes to Japan in the last few years.
What happened to tourism in Japan during the pandemic?
Japan’s government didn’t immediately close the borders in 2020. Instead, the government initially banned foreign travelers from China’s Hubei Province. Over time, it added more countries to the list.
In late December 2020, Japan barred all nonresident foreign nationals, effectively closing the country to international tourism. That paved the way for the surreal, spectatorless Tokyo Olympics, which were held in 2021.
While other countries slowly began to relax their travel restrictions in 2021, Japan didn’t full reopen until October 11, 2022. The country didn’t lift its vaccine and documentation requirements until late April of this year.
How Japanese tourism has bounced back
Tourism insiders didn’t know what to expect once the country reopened after 22 months of isolation. Japan hadn’t experienced a disruption like this in a generation. Would visitors gradually return? Or would there be a surge of tourists?
The numbers tell a remarkable story of recovery. In January, Japan had 1.5 million international arrivals, or about 44% fewer than the same period in 2019, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. But the year-to-year deficit shrank to 33% in April, with 2 million visitors; in August, 2.1 million visitors brought it down to 14%.
Japanese tourism professionals admit they were a bit taken aback by the speed of the recovery. Masaru Watanabe, general manager of the Palace Hotel Tokyo, says bookings at the luxury hotel have gone in a fast and steady upward trajectory since the reopening. If the pace continues, Japan will fully recover by 2024 and is on pace to exceed 2019 levels by the following year, if not sooner.
“Things are picking up incredibly,” he told me.
The return of tourism has been uneven, though. Tobu Railway, a transportation and hospitality company, opened six new hotels in advance of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, including the Ritz-Carlton, Nikko. Kenji Aoyagi, Tobu Railway’s executive officer, says some of its facilities in Tokyo are already back at pre-pandemic occupancy levels.
“Despite the recovery in the urban areas, the return to the rural areas has been slow,” he adds. “We hope to see sales return to pre-pandemic figures by next spring.”
More Americans are visiting Japan in 2023
Interest from American visitors has been particularly strong, “There has been a rapid surge in travel from North America,” says Peter Strebel, president of the Americas region at RateGain, a provider of travel and hospitality data.
RateGain’s travel intent data, which is based on flight bookings, projects a 110% rise in bookings in the next six months compared to the same period a year before. Strebel says both business and leisure travel are driving the demand.
But the American market remains fairly small in comparison to other countries. I checked with travel insurance company Arch RoamRight to find out how many of its policyholders are going to Japan. Among insured trips for the next 12 months, Japan accounts for slightly more than 1% of travel destinations (Italy is the most popular at 7%). The average insured trip cost to Japan is $6,200.
In other words, if you’re headed to some of the most popular places in Japan in 2024, it will probably be crowded — though not necessarily with Americans.
What has changed in Japan since the pandemic?
The pandemic changed Japan in many small ways and a few big ones.
- No sushi on the belts. The famous Kaiten sushi belts used to contain real sushi before the pandemic. But Japan expert Marian Goldberg says when she visited a famous Kaiten place in the Omotesando area of Tokyo, several plates were sailing along the belt, but they only had advertisements on them. “You had to order from the QR-Code menu and they hand delivered the plates to you,” she says. “They didn’t want people touching other people’s revolving plates.”
- Some businesses are gone. “Sadly, some of my favorite shops did not survive the pandemic,” says Stephanie Haddad, founder of Japan Food Trips. “But luckily, some of my new favorite shops were born, which is a testament to Tokyo’s strength in innovating and evolving.”
- Hotels are still short-staffed. Like elsewhere, some businesses closed during the pandemic and the ones that remain are struggling to hire new staff to meet demand, says Don George, who leads Japan trips and edits the GeoEx blog. “Many staffers were let go during the pandemic and the hotels haven’t been able to get back up to full staffing yet,” he says. “But the hotels themselves are open, and the service is still impeccable.”
- Getting to Japan is a little harder. Sayaka Yamashita, a spokeswoman for the ANA InterContinental Tokyo, says bringing guests to Japan remains a challenge. “Flights are still scarce and expensive,” she says. “The people who can afford to travel to Japan already have. But I think you have other people, who are maybe on a budget, who are waiting.” Hotels like the ANA Intercontinental and its sister property might see even more international business if more flights came online.
- Japan is more visitor-friendly. One of the things Josh Fields of Tokyo-based tour operator Arigato Travel’s product development team has noticed is a shift in Japanese attitudes toward visitors. A 20-year resident of Tokyo, he has watched the steady increase in visitors, followed by the abrupt border closure. Now, Japanese people are extra welcoming to international visitors, which may surprise some first-time visitors. “They appreciate having international visitors back,” he told me.
Changing the way Japan sees tourism — and tourists see Japan
Tourists and the destinations have undergone some significant changes, even in recent weeks.
RamKy Krishnan, who operates tours of Mount Fuji and Tokyo, says the pandemic drew a different kind of tourist to Japan — one who is more interested in truly getting to know the country.
“They don’t want to go sightseeing,” he says. “They want to understand the place.”
Destinations have changed, too.
“Before the pandemic, we had issues with congestion and etiquette at some tourist spots due to the rapid increase in the number of visitors,” says Kumiko Yoshioka, a spokeswoman for the Kyoto City Tourism Association. “During the pandemic, we had an opportunity to think about sustainable tourism in Kyoto.”
That led Kyoto to develop a code of conduct for sustainable tourism. It encourages visitors to support the development of the history, culture, and traditions while respecting the daily life of the residents. And it urges visitors to follow local rules and customs and to preserve the environment.
Kyoto is hardly the only Japanese destination to rethink tourism. Mount Fuji has been flooded with tourists in recent weeks, and authorities there say they may need to restrict the number of visitors soon. Too much tourism is a problem many popular Japanese destinations may soon face.
Pro advice for your next Japan trip
So there you have it: Tourism to Japan is on the rebound and there have been some important changes. But how do you plan your Japan adventure?
Don’t wait too long
“We’re already seeing availability for the springtime Sakura — the cherry blossom season — beginning to fill,” says Sam Goold, a Japan specialist at tour operator Red Savannah. He says many customers are waiting for prices to come down, but they may be waiting a while.
Cast a wide net
There’s more to Japan than Tokyo. Łukasz Koszyk, head of business development at e-visa provider Visafly. “My advice is to embrace the opportunity to explore both the well-trodden paths and the hidden gems,” he says. “Japan offers a plethora of experiences, from the historic temples of Kyoto to the vibrant streets of Tokyo.” But you can also explore other places, like Aizuwakamatsu, also known as Samurai City; or the subtropical island of Kyushu, which has a reputation for gorgeous beaches, volcanic mountains and a rich and controversial history of pottery.
Consider the off-season
Talk to anyone in Japan and they’ll tell you summers are oppressively hot and cherry blossom season is madness. “Travelers to Japan should try and visit during off-peak seasons like September through the beginning of December,” says Dallen Nakamura, who publishes a blog about Japan. “I prefer the beginning of December because September is usually hot and humid, making walking around and enjoying the outdoors in Japan difficult.” During the early part of winter, you can practically have Japan to yourself and can enjoy skiing, snowboarding, and other outdoor activities. Plus, you can try Japanese winter foods like hot pot, crab, and oden (one-pot dish).
For now, there is the fall foliage season to enjoy. Okada, the nonagenarian tour guide, reviews his schedule for the next few weeks on his phone and nods slightly. There’s a group tomorrow and the day after, and no sign of things slowing down any time soon.
“I haven’t been this busy in a long time,” he admits.
Autumn is a popular time to visit Japan, according to James Mundy, a spokesman for InsideJapan Tours. The leaves have only started turning in northern Japanese destinations such as Nikko, but in Tokyo and Kyoto, everything is still green as summer holds on for a few more weeks.
“The fall leaves color the mountainsides and temple gardens across the country, but actually continue as late as the first week of December in places such as Kyoto,” he says. “It’s a month that is traditionally quieter. But we shall see.”