Japan has fully opened its doors to visitors after more than two years of pandemic isolation.
On Tuesday, the country restored visa-free travel to dozens of countries, ending some of the strictest Covid-19 border controls in the world. Japan also lifted the entry limit of 50,000 people and ended the requirement that tourists travel as part of tour groups, Kyodo news agency reported.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is counting on tourism to help boost the economy and reap some benefits from the yen’s fall to a 24-year low, but hopes for a tourism boom face stiff headwinds: a shortage of hospitality workers, lingering concerns about the pandemic and forecasts. of economists that tourism returns would be gradual.
Kishida said last week that the government aims to attract 5 billion yen ($34.5 million) in annual tourism spending. That goal may be too ambitious for a sector that has been left behind during the pandemic.
Spending by foreign visitors will reach just 2.1 trillion yen by 2023 and not surpass pre-Covid levels until 2025, economist Takahide Kiuchi wrote in a report by the Nomura Research Institute.
Since June, Japan has allowed tourists to visit in groups accompanied by guides, a requirement that has been further relaxed to include self-guided tour packages.
Just over half a million visitors have arrived in Japan so far in 2022, compared to a record 31.8 million in 2019.
Arata Sawa is among those eager for the return of foreign visitors, who once made up 90% of the guests at his traditional inn.
“I am expecting and anticipating that many foreigners will come to Japan, just like before Covid,” said Sawa, the third-generation owner of the Sawanoya ryokan in Tokyo.
Japan Airlines Co has seen inbound bookings triple since the border easing announcement, Chairman Yuji Akasaka told the Nikkei newspaper last week, but demand for international travel will not fully recover until around 2025.
“I don’t think there will be a sudden return to the pre-pandemic situation,” said Sawato Shindo, president of Amina Collection Co, a 120-store gift and souvenir chain.
Hopes for a return to tourism are also dampened by a shortage of workers. Almost 73% of hotels nationwide said they were short of regular workers in August, compared with 27% a year earlier, according to market research firm Teikoku Databank.
Akihisa Inaba, general manager of the Yokikan hot spring resort in Shizuoka, central Japan, who said summer staff shortages meant workers had to give up time off.
“Naturally, the labor shortage will be more pronounced when inbound travel returns,” Inaba said. “So, I’m not so sure we can be very happy.”
Another concern is whether foreign visitors will wear face masks and comply with other common infection controls in Japan. Strict border controls have been popular for most of the pandemic, and there are still fears about the emergence of new viral variants.
On Friday, the government approved changing hotel regulations to allow operators to turn away guests who do not obey infection controls during an outbreak.
“Since the start of the pandemic until now, we have had only a few foreign guests,” said Tokyo hotelier Sawa. “Almost everyone was wearing masks, but I’m really not sure if people visiting from here will do the same.”
One force that may be driving the return of visitors is the falling yen: The yen has weakened sharply against the dollar, giving some visitors much higher spending power and making Japan attractive to bargain hunters who have target electronics, luxury goods and Japanese shopping districts.
In Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district, Hideyuki Abe’s shelves are filled with clocks and memorabilia such as samurai swords and toy cats with swinging heads. Abe employs about 50 people and resorted to layoffs following the pandemic in 2020. Some stores in Akihabara have since closed, but he bided his time.
“Holding on is where power resides,” Abe said. “Now, I’m a little worried about the labor shortage.”
With pandemic restrictions easing and the dollar at a three-decade high of about 145 yen, he believes tourists will return.
“This time,” he says, “is a perfect opportunity.”
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report