It would appear that Japan is on the verge of ending its glorious isolation and ultimately opening its borders. The most important question is whether or not it can regain its affection for tourists from other countries.
Following a string of border reopenings this year that were little more than PR stunts that promised more than they delivered, the big news came on Monday (September 12), when it was reported that Japan would remove the majority of its restrictions on tourists.
If these plans were to become a reality, the ease of entry into Japan would resemble what it was like in 2019 in terms of factors such as the restoration of the visa waiver for those who have three shots, the elimination of a daily cap on arrival numbers, and the authorization of tourists to book their trips without the assistance of a travel agent.
The typically cautious Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has made a choice that, while long overdue, is yet realistic. To normalize its border restrictions, Japan is currently taking advantage of a window of opportunity that won’t open for some time.
Both the recent cluster of COVID-19 cases and the searing heat of the summer are beginning to abate, setting the way for an autumn that should usher in a period of relative immunity to the disease as a result of both natural immunity and vaccination.
A more immediate factor that is also generating impetus is the weak yen, which is still trading close to a low level not seen in the previous 24 years in relation to the dollar. In a nation in which going out to eat was previously a financially viable choice, travelers paying in dollars may anticipate some jaw-droppingly low prices because of the country’s relatively tame inflation rate.
Kishida should be commended for making a courageous and maybe unpopular choice at a time when his approval ratings are plummeting. He made a commitment in May to gradually make admission into Japan as easy as it is for other G7 countries. According to a poll conducted by Asahi on Sunday, the proportion of respondents who disapprove of his Cabinet outnumbers those who support him, 47 percent to 41 percent.
Kishida made clear reference to capitalizing on the depreciating value of the yen in an earlier decision to loosen up border procedures during the summer. It is possible that the decision to reinstate the visa waiver, which could be announced this week, would also have some effect on the currency; an increase in the number of buyers of yen could give support and help to stem its drop.
Even though Japan has been steadily opening its borders to more people from other countries, new arrivals are still required to get visas. However, embassies and consulates frequently lack the staff necessary to accommodate the sudden increase in demand. The elimination of the requirement for visitors to obtain a visa was the decisive factor that led to a surge in tourism in Japan in the 2010s, which in turn spurred a significant new source of economic expansion.
It was a rare example of a government program that was tremendously successful, and it was Japan’s push for global travelers that made it possible for the country to become a mainstream tourist destination for the first time. The initial target of 20 million visitors by the year 2020 was surpassed with five years to spare, and the new target is for the number of visitors to be doubled.
There was a boom in the construction of hotels and amusement parks, and politicians talked about the country being a global leader like France, which receives 90 million tourists annually.
These proposals have been placed on hold by COVID-19. However, as a result of this, Japan has been presented with the opportunity to transition to a more intelligent strategy by utilizing the pandemic-era reset and the cheap yen.
The weak yen will win over tourists, but Japan might not welcome their company too much. Even before COVID-19, the congestion and pollution on the historic alleys of Kyoto had become a symbol of the negative effects of overtourism. This was especially true during COVID-19.
Kyoto, with its dense concentration of cultural artifacts and sightseeing spots, has suffered from the same problem of overdemand as cities such as Barcelona or Venice, both of which are attempting to solve the problem with a tourist tax. Kyoto’s problem is that it has a higher density of cultural artifacts and sightseeing spots than either Barcelona or Venice. Prior to the outbreak of the epidemic, the proud native people of the area had already begun to resent the large numbers of tourists.
There is a good chance that airline capacity will initially stagger the number of tourists who return. In any case, Chinese citizens, who made up more than one-third of tourists before the epidemic, are still unlikely to return due to the fact that their own domestic quarantine regulations are still in place. As a result, Japan will be able to begin to adjust its expectations as it opens its doors to the rest of the globe.
Instead of focusing on the total number of people that come each year, it should make a greater effort to get value from the individuals who actually make the trip. In 2019, the typical amount spent by an individual was only 159,000 yen, which is equivalent to $1,113 USD. In the next few years, public policy should place a greater emphasis on developing new methods to attract more high-net-worth individuals who are able to afford extended (and pricey) visits.