TOKYO — Nearly two and a half years after it instituted some of the world’s strictest pandemic-related border controls, Japan said Thursday it would finally welcome most tourists next month as it seeks to reinvigorate its some once lucrative travel industry.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, said on October 1. On January 11, Japan would remove numerical caps on daily arrivals and begin allowing tourists, who had been forced to arrange visits and receive visas through travel agencies, to move freely throughout the country.
“People from all over the world have been asking ‘when can we travel to Japan,'” Kishida said during a reception, according to public broadcaster NHK. “Now, I hope you will make plans to visit Japan and try Japanese cuisine.”
The announcement came as two other major Asian holdouts were also moving to lift some of their latest border restrictions. Taiwan said on Thursday that it would end a mandatory three-day quarantine for visitors by Oct. 1. 13 minimum. Hong Kong was expected to announce a similar step on Friday, its biggest move to live with Covid-19.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Japan was quick to slam its borders shut, shutting down virtually everyone who wasn’t a citizen. Reopening borders, however, has been a drawn-out process, taken in increments long after nearly every other major nation had fully reopened.
The decision to open the borders comes as Japan’s Covid cases have fallen to their lowest numbers in months, and as the country’s currency hovers around its weakest level against the dollar in nearly a quarter-century.
While the yen’s slide has been painful for domestic consumers, the government hopes it will make Japan an attractive destination for bargain-seeking tourists. On Friday, the yen, which has fallen more than 20 percent in the past year, was hovering around 142 to the dollar.
Over the past decade, international tourism has become an increasingly important industry for Japan, which heavily promoted travel to the country in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, originally scheduled for August 2020 but held a year later.
More than 30 million international tourists visited Japan in 2019, nearly triple the number six years earlier, according to government data.
When the pandemic hit, the country banned virtually all travel from abroad, making it almost impossible to obtain a visa for any purpose, including business. Hundreds of thousands of foreign residents who had built their lives in the country found themselves locked up for months, separating couples and families.
After vaccines became available, the country began a tentative reopening. Limited business and study travel resumed this spring. Tourism, however, was largely limited to people participating in tightly controlled package tours.
Even as business leaders pressed the government to fully reopen, arguing that Japan was doing itself a disservice by falling behind the rest of the Group of 7 developed nations in lifting restrictions, officials moved slowly. and public opinion polls showed support for narrow borders.
Some critics said the government’s decision to maintain the restrictions was based on politics, not science, warning that Japan was slipping into the kind of isolation that had marked earlier periods in its history.
Now, the reopening could trigger a rush of pent-up travel demand, providing a much-needed jolt to the country’s hardest-hit travel and hospitality sectors.
But inbound tourism is unlikely to approach pre-pandemic levels any time soon. Chinese tourists, who accounted for around 30 percent of incoming tourism in 2019, have very limited ability to travel under Beijing’s strict anti-Covid policies. China is the latest major country to keep its borders largely closed in an effort to eliminate the virus.
Domestically, Japan plans to encourage tourism by offering government-subsidized discounts to Japanese residents for hotels, restaurants and some types of entertainment, Kishida said. It’s a revival of a plan, known as “Go to Travel,” that his predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, put forward in an effort to help domestic tourism after it was wiped out in the early months of the pandemic.
Travelers wishing to enter Japan must show that they have received three injections of a coronavirus vaccine or provide evidence of a negative test taken no more than 72 hours before leaving for Japan.
Hisako Ueno contributed report.