Covid restrictions halt tourism revival in Japan and much of Asia

Tourists are flocking to Japan just two months after the government announced it would reopen borders closed to foreign travelers for two years under coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

Analysts said insistence by Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong to maintain restrictions, such as quarantines and testing in some jurisdictions, has left the region a global outlier and slowed its tourism recovery.

“It’s very different now [parts of] Asia in a different league than the rest of the world,” said Brendan Sobey, travel industry analyst at Sobey Aviation.

Sobi added that tourism in South-East and South Asia has improved rapidly as countries there have already lifted restrictions.

“Many tourists have not returned to the region, and they booked their summer vacations in advance [restrictions started lifting]Therefore, there has been a delay in returning tourists,’ he said.

Although Japan reopened its borders in June, it has struggled to attract foreign visitors with strict travel guidelines that require visitors to be escorted by a guide “from entry to departure.”

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The reopening also coincided with the country’s largest coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic, driven by the highly transmissible BA.5 Omicron sub-variant. Japan’s daily Covid cases have fallen below the 200,000 mark this week, after 250,000 cases were reported for the first time last week.

Despite the yen’s sharp decline, only 120,400 visitors entered Japan in June, down from May and April when borders were still closed, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Of those visitors, only 252 were tourists. In 2019, nearly 32 million tourists visited Japan.

Clara Pelham, director of sales for US luxury tour operator TCS World Travel, said there was little demand for its escorted private jet tours of major cities across Japan, mainly due to confusion over guidelines.

“Consumers and even travel advisors are unclear . . . what other restrictions they may face once they arrive in Japan,” Pelham said.

“Japan will not be a competitive destination until those restrictions are lifted.”

Official numbers, however, may not provide a complete picture of how many foreign visitors have visited Japan, as the government grants short-term visas to foreign nationals for “special exceptional circumstances” such as weddings and funerals.

While China’s border remains closed, Hong Kong began allowing international tourists to visit from May, but maintains a minimum seven-day quarantine, which was shortened to three days last week. The isolation has crushed the travel industry and plunged the Chinese region’s economy into recession.

“Our inbound [tourism] The team is in hibernation mode. We have skeleton staff to handle inbound passengers,” said Lily Agonoy, managing director of Jebsen Holidays in Hong Kong. “Why would tourists come to Hong Kong if they have to stay in quarantine? Tourists usually only come for four to five days.

South Korea is the “most open” of North Asian destinations, but Incheon Airport recorded just 17 percent passenger traffic in the second quarter compared to 2019, according to travel analyst Sobi.

All travelers to South Korea must undergo a PCR test within 24 hours of arrival.

In an effort to boost tourist numbers, Seoul city officials announced this month that tourists from Japan, Taiwan and Macau will be temporarily allowed visa-free entry into South Korea for the remainder of August. The average wait for Japanese tourists to obtain a Korean tourist visa is three to four weeks.

In April, Korea downgraded Covid-19 to a “class 2” disease, along with conditions like tuberculosis and cholera, and scrapped all remaining social-distancing measures.

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