TOKYO (AP) – Japan on Friday eased its borders for foreign tourists and began accepting visa applications, but only for those on guided package tours who are willing to follow mask use and other antivirus measures while the country gently tries to balance business and infection concerns.
Friday is the first day to start procedures needed for entry, and arrivals are not expected until the end of June at the earliest, even though the airport’s immigration and quarantine offices were ready for any arrivals.
Japan Tourism Agency says tours are accepted from 98 countries and regions, including the United States, Britain, China, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore, which are considered to have a low risk of infection.
Japan’s partial resumption of international tourism, which was halted during the coronavirus pandemic, is being carried out under guidelines based on an experiment conducted in late May. It involved around 50 participants, mostly tour agency staff from Australia, Singapore, Thailand and the USA.
In one case, a tour for a group of four members was canceled when one of the participants tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Japan.
“We expect that the resumption of incoming tourism will help stimulate the local economy,” Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Tetsuo Saito told reporters on Friday. “We will continue to strive to restore the demand for tourism while balancing anti-infective measures and social and economic activities.”
According to the guidelines, participants are asked to wear face masks most of the time and to purchase insurance to cover medical expenses in case they receive COVID-19. The rules do not set a ceiling for the number of people in a group, but tour guides must be present throughout the trip.
After facing criticism that their strict border controls were xenophobic, Japan began easing restrictions earlier this year. On June 1, it doubled the ceiling on daily entries to 20,000 people a day, including Japanese nationals, foreign students and some business travelers.
For the time being, the daily limit will include package tour participants, and officials say it will take some time before foreign visitors can come to Japan for free individual tourism.
Japan-based business groups representing the group of seven countries and the EU, in a joint statement on Friday, welcomed Japan’s gradual resumption of foreign tourism, but called on the government to “further ease border controls to facilitate an environment where people, goods, money and digital technologies can move freely, thus promoting Japan’s economic growth. “
They asked Japan to follow the example of other G-7 countries and resume individual tourism, eliminate testing at airports, lift the daily entry limit and resume international flights at more than a dozen regional airports.
Japan’s inbound tourism business has been dormant during the pandemic, and although the country welcomes tourists and their spending, infection concerns among Japanese persist, especially in popular tourist destinations.
Unlike most western countries where mask use has largely been abandoned, most people continue to use them even in situations, such as outdoors in pristine surroundings, where they are no longer in demand.
Japan still reports more than 10,000 new COVID-19 cases daily, even though the number in Tokyo is below 2,000.
The latest rules for mask use require that people use them on public transport systems, in hospitals and other public facilities. People can take off their masks outdoors when others are not around or talking loudly.
It is unclear how popular the package travel options will be among foreign tourists, most of whom will have to apply for a tourist visa which can take weeks to obtain. But the yen is trading at a 20-year low against the US dollar and weak against other major currencies, which will make traveling in the high-cost country something of a bargain.
Foreign tourism revenues fell more than 90% in 2020 from a record high of 31.9 million the year before, almost wiping out the pre-pandemic incoming tourism market of more than 4 trillion yen ($ 30 billion).