So what is the reason for the disparity? And why are travelers so slow to return to what has historically been a popular destination?
There is no safety in numbers
Although Japan is accessible again, the country currently allows leisure tourists to come in organized groups rather than as individuals. For many in the West, who prefer ease and don’t want to follow a strict itinerary, that issue was a deal breaker.
“We don’t need to be babysat,” says Melissa Musiker, a New York-based public relations professional who regularly travels to Japan.
Musiker and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times.” The pair had planned to visit again in 2022 when they heard the borders were reopening, but were frustrated by the restrictions and left.
Instead, they are opting for a new destination and going to South Korea for their vacation.
“We didn’t want to quarantine. That was a big factor,” says Musiker. “We just like to travel and shop and eat expensive sushi.”
The preference for city visits over beach vacations tipped the scales in Seoul’s favor, as did her epidemic-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 completely non-open policy doesn’t just apply to visas. Many areas of the country still have mask rules, group tours can be expensive, and Japan requires quarantine on arrival, making it a tough sell.
Before the pandemic, most of Ari’s users were Asian travelers – living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore – who visited Japan several times a year or just hopped over for a convenient long weekend. Since 2020, however, the company has had to go on hiatus.
“We didn’t know it would take this long,” she says in what must have been a short-lived pause. “It’s definitely been tough.”
Some of the members who have started contacting Ari about bookings, Tam says, are people who have been able to get business travel visas to Japan. Currently, it’s the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as solo visitors, and some are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to get spots at restaurants they couldn’t book in advance.
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 base for customers,” says Tam. Conversely, this means that these popular places will still be in business when foreign tourists are able to come.
According to the Immigration Service Agency, the two biggest markets for Japan’s tourism right now are Thailand and South Korea. But “biggest” here is relative—about 400 people from every country have visited Japan since June. Only 150 came from the United States.
Before the epidemic, Kyoto’s narrow streets were filled with visitors.
Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images
In 2019, Japan’s single largest tourism market was neighboring China, with 9.25 million Chinese visiting.
Now, though, China is essentially closed off from the rest of the world. It still has strict quarantine protocols for citizens and foreigners, which has brought tourism to a standstill.
The Tokyo Skytree is the tallest structure in Japan.
Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Reuters
Hiroyuki Ami, Tokyo Skytree’s head of public relations, says it took until June 27 for the first international tour group to reach the observation deck. The group included guests from Hong Kong.
There are strict restrictions on residents returning to the financial hub city, including mandatory hotel quarantine, but it is still easier for tourists to travel there than from mainland China.
“Before Covid, Ami says, “the biggest number (of foreign visitors) came from China, but I haven’t seen them recently.” He confirmed that most of Skytree’s visitors in the past six weeks were local Japanese on their summer vacation.
“Just because the acceptance of tourists has resumed does not mean we are getting more customers from abroad,” he adds.
Waiting in the wings
“There’s a huge interest in returning to Japan,” says Ari co-founder Tam. “I think it’s going to pick up.”
CNN’s Kathleen Benoza in Tokyo contributed reporting.