Japan prepares to welcome foreign tourists

After more than two years of closed border policy, Japan is once again welcoming foreign tourists. Since June 10, small groups, accompanied by tourist guides, are admitted. Ahead of the limited reopening, dozens of overseas travelers got a taste of what to expect.

For now, Japan only allows tourists from 98 countries and regions to participate in guided tours. Ahead of the June 10 reopening, the government has issued guidelines for the travel agencies that will organize them.

New guidelines for foreign travelers

Businesses will inform customers of local health guidelines, help them purchase private health insurance and track close contacts. If a traveler tests positive for COVID-19 during a visit, they will be guided to a designated health facility for treatment. Close contacts will be asked to self-isolate, and any tour participant who is not considered a close contact will be permitted to continue the tour.

Japan has tourism guidelines in place.

The Japan Tourism Agency released these rules, based on the results of a series of test tours conducted in May and early June.

Test Circuits in Nagano Prefecture

On May 27, four Australian travel agents arrive at Tokyo‘s Haneda Airport. They are on one of several government-sponsored package tours, organized by a licensed travel agency.

Four Australian tourists are taking part in the government-sponsored trip.

“I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re very excited about Japan reopening its borders for travelers coming into the country,” Clement Kueh said. They don’t spend much time at the airport, nor do they get to see Tokyo. Shortly after landing, the four travelers head straight for the city of Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture.

Travelers are required to check their temperature in the morning.

They start their next morning with a temperature check in the hotel lobby. It’s one of many anti-COVID measures they’ve pledged to follow throughout their trip, such as frequent use of hand sanitizer and wearing masks when out in public.

As well as helping Japan finalize guidelines for the June 10 reopening, travel agents say they will use their experience to advise customers at home, many of whom have not experienced mandatory masking rules since some time.

“Sometimes I forget the mask, but we see that everyone is wearing them too, apart from eating, and we’re not used to doing that in Australia now. Luckily our guide reminds us, mask- the!” said Sandy Brasier, one of the participants. She and her fellow travelers are not allowed to stray very far from their tour guide, Tsukushi Kimiko, who frequently reminds them of the rules.

Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture is a popular destination.

The main event of the group’s first day of travel is Matsumoto Castle. Once a towering fortress used by samurai to wield authority over the local population, it is now a popular tourist attraction for foreign travelers and Japanese residents. People can climb the castle’s steep wooden steps and view exhibits featuring some of the feudal-era weapons and armor used by its former defenders.

Locals await the arrival of foreign tourists

The organized tour is organized around pre-planned visits to museums and historical places like this. Group members are not permitted to go alone, but the route provides opportunities to explore and meet the locals. After touring the castle, travelers are allowed to stroll down Nawate Street, a popular shopping area a five-minute walk away.

Christopher Koch is one of the local business owners eager to receive foreign tourists.

Christopher Koch is a cafe owner who moved to Matsumoto City 6 years ago. He says he fell in love with the area shortly after moving from the United States to Japan. He says his business, which offers Western dishes like bagels and barbecued pulled pork, has proven popular with both expats living in the city and overseas travelers passing through. In 2019 it moved to a bigger location on Nawate Street.

Then COVID-19 hit. “All my plans fell through. Basically, I wanted to organize music events and parties and invite tourists, but with the pandemic, there are no more tourists,” says Koch. He says a boarding house he and his wife set up on the second floor has gone virtually unused and business has plummeted by almost 80%.

Koch says he’s excited about the potential to meet more customers as Japan reopens to tourists. He says he understands that since it’s starting with small tours, it might be a while before you see a bump in business. However, he says the gradual reopening is a good first step.

Is the tourism boom back?

Meanwhile, members of the travel industry say a financial boom could still be months away. A representative of a subsidiary of Japan’s largest travel agency said that under the current plan, most of their overseas customers are being left out.

CEO of Japanese travel agency Kurosawa Billy Shinya said: “The overwhelming demand is from individual customers who can move freely.”

According to Kurosawa Billy Shinya, President and CEO of JTB Global Marketing & Travel, only 17% of overseas tourists who came to Japan in 2019 took part in organized group tours. The others chose to travel solo.

“The overwhelming demand is for individual customers who can move freely. If possible, I hope we can take the next step from around September and be allowed to accept solo travelers,” Kurosawa says.

Australian tourists visit Koch’s cafe.

Back on Nawate Street, Koch has the chance to meet some of the Australian travel agents as they wrap up their first big day of sightseeing. They are going to dine elsewhere, but one of the travelers says she will share an article about her cafe on Facebook.

“It was good to see the tour,” Koch says, as the travelers continue on their way. “It gives me some hope for the summer.”

Coronavirus Updates