Japan is open to travel. So why don’t tourists come back?

This is particularly impressive in Japan, which reopened to much fanfare in June 2022, just in time for peak travel. Between June 10 and July 10, the country welcomed about 1,500 leisure tourists, according to data from the Japan Immigration Service. This is down 95% from the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.

So what causes inequality? And why are travelers slow to return to what has historically been a popular destination?

No safety in numbers

Although Japan is once again accessible, the country currently allows leisure tourists to come only in organized groups and not as individuals. For many in the West, who prefer spontaneity and don’t want to follow a strict itinerary, this issue was something of a disappointment.

“We don’t need to babysat,” says Melissa Musiker, a New York-based PR professional who has traveled regularly to Japan.

Musiker and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times.” The couple had planned to visit again in 2022 when they heard the borders were reopening, but were frustrated by the restrictions and gave up.

Instead, they choose a new destination and go to South Korea for their vacation.

“We don’t want to quarantine ourselves. That was a huge factor,” says Musiker. “We like to go and shop and eat expensive sushi.”

A preference for city visits over beach vacations tipped the scales in Seoul’s favor, as did its pandemic-born addiction to K-dramas.

Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, Japan was usually surrounded by tourists and street vendors.

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Semi-open is not open

Japan’s not fully open policy doesn’t just apply to visas. The country still has mask rules in many areas, group tours can be expensive and Japan requires quarantine on arrival, making it a tougher sell.

Katie Tam is the co-founder of Arry, a members-only subscription platform that helps guests in Japan make reservations at some of Tokyo’s most sought-after restaurants, including Obama-approved Sukiyabashi Jiro and Den, which is topping the list of Asia’s best restaurants.

Before the pandemic, many of Arry’s users were Asian travelers — living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore — who visited Japan several times a year or could just pop in for a spontaneous long weekend . As of 2020, however, the company had to stop.

“We didn’t know it would take this long,” he says of what was supposed to be a short-term hiatus. “It was definitely difficult.”

The few members who are starting to contact Arry again about making reservations, Tam says, are people who have managed to get visas for business trips to Japan. This is currently the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as individual visitors, and some are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to get seats at restaurants they could not reserve before.

However, there is good news. Despite the challenges, many of Japan’s best restaurants are doing well amid the pandemic.

“Many of the restaurants we work with have a strong local customer base,” says Tam. On the other hand, this means that these popular places will still operate whenever foreign tourists can come.

According to the Immigration Services Agency, the two biggest markets for Japanese tourism now are Thailand and South Korea. But “biggest” here is relative — about 400 people from each country have visited Japan since June. Only 150 came from the United States.

Before the pandemic, Kyoto's narrow streets were packed with visitors.

Before the pandemic, Kyoto’s narrow streets were packed with visitors.

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The China phenomenon

In 2019, Japan’s largest tourism market was neighboring China, with 9.25 million Chinese visiting.

Now, however, China remains effectively cut off from the rest of the world. It still has strict quarantine protocols in place for both citizens and foreigners, bringing tourism to a standstill.

Japan is not the only country that has been hit hard by the lack of Chinese travelers. Popular destinations for Chinese tourists such as Australia, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea all lost revenue as a billion-plus potential travelers stayed home.
Tokyo Skytree is the tallest building in Japan.

Tokyo Skytree is the tallest building in Japan.

Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Reuters

Hiroyuki Ami, head of public relations at Tokyo Skytree, says it took until June 27 for the first international tour group to arrive at the observation deck. The group in question consisted of guests from Hong Kong.

The economic hub city has strict restrictions, including a mandatory hotel quarantine for returning residents, but it is still easier for tourists to travel from there than from mainland China.

“Before Covid, Ami says, ‘the biggest number (of foreign visitors) were from China, but I haven’t seen them recently.'” He confirmed that most of Skytree’s visitors over the past six weeks were local Japanese in the summer the holidays.

“Just because the reception of tourists has started again does not mean that we have many customers from abroad,” he adds.

Waiting in the wings

Chances are good that when and if Japan decides to fully reopen to individual leisure tourists, they’ll want to come. The catchphrase “revenge trip” was coined to describe people who saved their money during Covid and now want to splurge on a big bucket-list trip, and Japan remains a popular bucket-list destination.

“There is huge interest in returning to Japan,” says Tam, co-founder of Arry. “I think it’s going to go up.”

CNN’s Kathleen Benoza in Tokyo contributed reporting.

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