As countries in Asia reopen to international travelers, Japan, one of the continent’s most popular destinations, remains firmly closed.
That may change soon. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced at a news conference in London on Thursday that Japan will ease border controls in June.
Locals often celebrate the easing of pandemic-related border restrictions, but some in Japan say they’re fine with keeping the measures in place.
Even before the pandemic, many locals preferred to travel within the country, with domestic tourism totaling 21.9 trillion yen ($167 billion) in 2019, according to government-backed data. Japan Tourism Agency.
Although Japanese people are currently allowed to travel abroad, many “don’t want to go abroad” and prefer “to travel within the country,” said Dai Miyamoto, founder of the travel agency. Japan located.
Izumi Mikami, Senior CEO of Japan Space Systems, visited Kyushu Island and Okinawa Island, two tourist hotspots before the pandemic. She said that she felt safer with fewer tourists around.
Some people are taking advantage of being outdoors after spending a lot of time at home.
Shogo Morishige, a college student, took several ski trips to Nagano, the prefecture that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, and said it was “surprisingly packed” with locals.
“Everyone who is similar to us hadn’t traveled for a long time… Right now, it’s almost as if [Covid-19] he’s not really here,” Morishige said. “I don’t think anyone is too afraid of him.”
Others ventured to new destinations.
“After I moved to Yamagata Prefecture, I started going to places I wouldn’t normally go, like ski resorts… hot springs in the mountains and aquariums and sandy beaches,” said Shion Ichikawa, a management employee at risks in signing Internet Line. .
International travelers to Japan fell from nearly 32 million in 2019 to only 250,000 in 2021according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.
With a clientele of almost all locals, some tour companies redesigned their tours to fit local interests.
Japanese travelers have moved away from visiting big cities and opted for outdoor experiences that they can “discover on foot,” Miyamoto said. So Japan Localized, which catered to English-speaking foreigners before the pandemic, collaborated with the local tour company. Mai Mai Kyoto and Mai Mai Tokyo to offer walking tours in Japanese.
People throughout Japan also spend time at camps and onsen, or hot springs: spas, said Lee Xian Jie, chief developer at travel company Craft Tabby.
“Campsites have become very popular,” he said. “RV rentals and outdoor gear sales have done really well because people are getting outside a lot more.”
Luxury onsens popular with young people “are doing pretty well,” but traditional onsens are suffering because the elderly are “quite scared of Covid” and don’t go out much, Lee said.
Craft Tabby used to operate walking and cycling tours in Kyoto, but transitioned online when the pandemic hit. As countries reopen their borders, “online tours have not gone well” and participation “has dropped to almost zero,” Lee said.
Tourist appetites are changing and people are looking for “niche” activities in “rural areas where it’s not as densely populated,” he said.
Lee now lives south of Kyoto in a town called Ryujinmura and plans to operate tours in the rural town once the tourists return.
“We need to think about tours and activities here where people can explore new things,” he added.
Japan welcomed nearly 32 million international visitors in 2019, down from just 6.8 million just ten years earlier, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
The rapid increase in tourists caused major attractions, such as the culturally rich city of Kyoto, to struggle against overtourism.
Kyoto residents now say “silence has returned,” said Miyamoto, who recounted cases in which foreign tourists spoke loudly and were rude to locals.
Similarly, Lee said that “many people who were quite upset about Kyoto’s overtourism” now say that “it feels like Kyoto 20 years ago: good old Kyoto.”
But that may be coming to an end.
Prime Minister Kishida’s announcement may not be good news for part of the Japanese population.
More than 65% of respondents in a recent poll by Japanese broadcaster NHK said they agreed with the border measures or believed they should be strengthened, according to The New York Times.
Local reports indicate international travelers may need multiple Covid-19 tests and a package travel reservation to enter, though JNTO told CNBC they haven’t heard back yet. Still, this may not be enough to pacify some residents.
Spending by foreign visitors contributes less than 5% to Japan’s overall gross domestic product, so it’s “not necessarily surprising that the government makes decisions that prioritize” other industries, said Shintaro Okuno, partner and president of Bain. & Company Japan, referring to why the country had remained closed.
Women in kimonos tie ‘omikuji’ fortune tellers outside Yasaka Shrine during the Golden Week holiday in Kyoto, Japan, Tuesday, May 3, 2022.
Kōsuke Okahara | Mayor Bloomberg | fake images
The recent decision is likely to be more unpopular with Japan’s elderly citizens, Ichikawa said. Nearly 1 in 3 is over 65, so Japan is home to the highest percentage of older people in the worldaccording to the research organization PRB.
“The elderly tend to have more prejudice than the young that foreigners bring Covid-19,” Ichikawa said. “It is understandable that in Japan, a country of older people, politicians should tighten borders to protect them physically and psychologically.”
When the pandemic was at its height, Japanese people were even wary of people from other parts of Japan visiting their hometowns.
“I saw signs in public parks and tourist attractions saying ‘no cars outside of Wakayama,'” Lee said. “People were quite afraid of others from outside the prefecture.”
However, residents who live in cities may feel differently.
“Japan is too strict and conservative” in controlling Covid-19, said Mikami, who lives in Tokyo.
Miyako Komai, a teacher who lives in Tokyo, said she is ready to move on.
“We need to invite more foreign people” so that Japan’s economy can recover, he said. “I don’t agree that we want the measures to be tightened… We need to start living a normal life.”