Japan’s easing of a two-year ban on foreign tourists seeks to balance the enormous economic importance of tourism with concerns that travellers would trigger a Covid outbreak, insiders say.
The decision means Japan will allow in a limited number of foreign tourists on package tours starting June 10. Last week a few “test tours”, mainly of overseas travel agents, started to arrive.
Relaxing some of the world’s strictest pandemic border measures required months of pressure from travel and tourism executives, three insiders told Reuters, describing both the government’s fears of public backlash if infections spiked and the industry’s concerns of an economic wipeout.
“There were worries that foreign tourists would include a lot of people with bad manners – people who don’t wear masks or don’t use hand sanitiser and that infections could spread again,” said one tourism company executive, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The industry pressed Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior partner as well as government ministries, he said, but initially found them unresponsive.
Government resistance softened after Japan’s “Golden Week” holidays in May, when people travelled domestically but infections didn’t sharply increase, the executive said.
“If the government doesn’t open up the country, more companies will go bankrupt, and that’s no good politically,” he said.
Kishida’s LDP faces an election in July. Although the closed-border policy was overwhelmingly popular early on, the public has warmed up to reopening as the pandemic has eased and the cost of closure became more apparent. A recent Nikkei poll showed 67% of respondents felt it was “reasonable” to allow in foreign tourists.
The foreign ministry felt pressure from overseas on the measures, and was one of a handful of ministries that tried to persuade Kishida’s government, another insider said.