Covid restrictions hamper tourism revival in Japan and much of Asia

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Only a trickle of tourists are visiting Japan two months after the government announced it would reopen borders that had been largely closed to foreign travelers for two years under coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

Analysts said Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong’s insistence on maintaining coronavirus pandemic restrictions, such as quarantine and testing in some jurisdictions, made the region an outlier. world and slowed its recovery in tourism.

“There is a stark contrast at the moment with [parts of] Asia in a different league to the rest of the world,” said Brendan Sobie, travel industry analyst at Sobie Aviation.

Sobie added that tourism in Southeast and South Asia has recovered faster as countries there have already dropped restrictions.

“Many tourists have not returned to the area, and they have booked summer vacations before [restrictions started lifting]so there is a delay in the return of tourists,” he said.

Although Japan reopened its borders in June, it is struggling to attract foreign visitors with strict travel guidelines that require visitors to be accompanied by a guide “from entry to departure”.

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The reopening also coincided with the country’s largest coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic, which was caused by the highly transmissible BA.5 Omicron subvariant. Japan’s daily Covid cases fell below 200,000 this week after surpassing 250,000 infections for the first time last week.

Despite a sharp drop in the yen, only 120,400 visitors entered Japan in June, fewer than in May and April when borders were still closed, according to Japan’s National Tourism Organization.

Of these visitors, only 252 were tourists. Nearly 32 million tourists visited Japan in 2019.

Clara Pellham, sales director of US luxury tour operator TCS World Travel, said there was very low demand for its escorted private jet tour in major cities in Japan, mainly due to confusion over guidelines.

“Consumers and even travel advisors are unclear about . . . what other restrictions they might encounter once they arrive in Japan,” Pelham said.

“Japan will not be a competitive destination until some of these restrictions are lifted.”

Official figures, however, may not provide a complete picture of the number of foreign visitors to Japan, as the government has granted short-term visas to foreign nationals in “special exceptional circumstances”, such as weddings. and funerals.

While China’s borders are still closed, Hong Kong began allowing international tourists to visit from May but maintained a minimum quarantine of seven days, which was shortened to three days last week. The isolation has crushed the travel industry and pushed the territory’s economy back into recession.

“Our arrival [tourism] the team is in hibernation mode. We have a reduced staff to handle incoming travellers,” said Lily Agonoy, general manager of Jebsen Holidays in Hong Kong. “Why would tourists come to Hong Kong if they have to be quarantined? Normally, tourists only come for four to five days.

South Korea is the “most open” of North Asian destinations, according to travel analyst Sobie, but Incheon airport saw just 17% of passenger traffic compared to 2019 in the second quarter.

All passengers bound for South Korea must take a PCR test within 24 hours of arrival.

In a bid to boost tourist numbers, Seoul city authorities announced this month that tourists from Japan, Taiwan and Macau would be temporarily allowed visa-free entry into South Korea for the rest of August. The average wait for a Japanese tourist to receive a Korean tourist visa is three to four weeks.

In April, Korea dropped all remaining social distancing measures and downgraded Covid-19 to a “class 2” disease, alongside illnesses such as tuberculosis and cholera.

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