Japan travel campaign upset after Minister’s remarks

Japan’s travel subsidy campaign was further confused on Friday when officials had to quickly clarify a recommendation from the tourism minister regarding the contentious program, with his stance on covering cancellation fees in the face of opposition a senior member of the ruling coalition.

Tourism Minister Kazuyoshi Akaba urged young and old in large groups not to use the campaign, citing the risk that they will spread the coronavirus and, in the case of the elderly, develop severe symptoms.

Travelers line up while maintaining social distancing before boarding a high-speed shinkansen train from JR Tokyo Station on June 19, 2020. The government has completely lifted COVID-19 inter-prefectural travel restrictions the same day. (Kyodo)

He said specific age groups and the size of visits subject to notice were under consideration. But an official from the Japan Tourism Agency later said that would ultimately leave that to the discretion of travel agencies because “it would be difficult to draw a line due to the diverse nature of travel.”

The agency is affiliated with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism headed by Akaba.

The government on Thursday revised the travel initiative shortly before it started on Wednesday, excluding Tokyo from the program after the capital reported a record number of new coronavirus cases, remaining the area hardest hit by the virus.

The abrupt decision prompted cancellations by people living in Tokyo or planning to visit the capital as part of the Go To Travel campaign, which is designed to encourage domestic travel to help jump-start the virus-stricken economy.

Akaba said the government did not intend to compensate for the costs incurred by these people. But Noritoshi Ishida, political leader of the Komeito party, called on the government to “consider (compensate) the cancellation costs” following the exclusion of Tokyo from the campaign. The party is the junior partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party coalition.

As part of the 1.35 trillion yen ($ 12.59 billion) tourism campaign, the campaign will end up subsidizing up to half of travel costs, including accommodation and transportation costs, the government initially offering discounts representing 35% of total costs.

The remaining 15% will be covered by coupons that will be issued after September for food, shopping and other travel activities offered at destinations, according to the Tourism Ministry.

The government has decided to exclude travel to and from Tokyo from the controversial initiative, fearing the planned nationwide campaign may contribute to a resurgence of viral infections.

Akaba said it was a “heartbreaking” decision to pull out Tokyo, but the capital has become “a center of viral spread”.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also apologized for the move, adding that Tokyo will be restored when the number of infections in the capital drops.

Despite the decision to exclude Tokyo, there remain concerns that some travelers will stay in hotels outside the capital but visit tourist sites and restaurants inside, compromising virus containment measures.

Japanese Tourism Minister Kazuyoshi Akaba speaks at a press conference in Tokyo on July 17, 2020 about the Go To Travel campaign, which aims to rejuvenate the economy affected by the coronavirus by boosting tourism. He said the day before that the government would exclude the hardest hit Tokyo from the campaign. (Kyodo)

Tourists using Tokyo and Haneda Airport stations in the capital, meanwhile, will likely be eligible for the government subsidy campaign as long as they stay in accommodation facilities outside the capital.

The campaign will offer discounts to those who have already booked trips scheduled from Wednesday if they apply to campaign operators after they return.

Akaba also said the government would require accommodation establishments in the remaining 46 prefectures to take anti-virus measures such as checking the temperature of guests and confirming their identity in order for them to be eligible for the campaign.

The grant program was originally scheduled to begin in August before Bon’s vacation in Japan around mid-month, when many people living in major cities return to their hometowns. But it was brought forward in time for a four-day long weekend starting Thursday.

Local government leaders had expressed concern about the initiative, as they feared the campaign would bring the virus to their areas from the metropolis.

Tokyo, which reported a record 293 infections on Friday, raised its alert level to a high of four amid a recent resurgence in infections.

On Thursday, three prefectures surrounding Tokyo – Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama – as well as Osaka Prefecture also recorded their highest number of daily cases since the lifting of the state of emergency in late May, bringing the national total to 622.

The total number of nationwide infections in Japan reached around 24,200 on Friday, excluding some 700 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship which was quarantined near Tokyo in February.

Associated coverage:

Japan to launch Tokyo-free travel campaign amid virus resurgence

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