Tokyo, Japan – Hiroshi Kawaguchi, general manager of a tour company in Kyoto, felt a wave of relief at the news that Japan would welcome the return of foreign tourists after more than two years of closed borders.
But as Kawaguchi read the fine print, his enthusiasm soon waned.
Under the Japan Tourism Agency’s “test tourism” trial announced earlier this month, just 50 visitors from four countries – Australia, Thailand, the United States and Singapore – will be allowed to take part in tours organised by selected travel agencies.
The tour groups will also be restricted to tripled-vaccinated visitors, capped at four people and accompanied by a guide at all times.
The trial run, which follows a pledge by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to ease border restrictions from June, will be used to gather information and hone infection control measures for a broader resumption of tourism at an unspecified later date.
“To control the movement of travellers, I can understand the approach,” Kawaguchi, who runs the sustainability-focused tour operator Oku Japan, told Al Jazeera. “However, it is a very restricted way of accepting leisure travellers. The ways of travel are diverse, and segregating travellers and focusing on only ‘fixed itineraries’ with a tour leader is rather odd.”
Since Japan closed its borders in April 2020, online travel forums and social media groups have buzzed with discussion about the timeline for the nation’s reopening.
The pressure for reopening has increased as other East Asian nations, including South Korea and Malaysia, have resumed tourism after long periods of isolation, and the Japanese economy faces headwinds amid the yen’s plunge to a 20-year low against the US dollar.
Globally, Japan, which has experienced several waves of the virus and reported about 30,300 deaths, is one of only a handful of economies that remain largely closed, along with China and Taiwan.
“After more than two years of de facto isolation, I think we should take the next step as soon as possible,” Yoshi Tomiyama, a tour guide, sake sommelier and inbound tourism specialist in Kobe, told Al Jazeera, describing the test run as “insufficient”.
“While many markets are recovering from the economic blow of COVID-19, the inbound market is still struggling.”
Tomiyama said her business has withered away since Japan closed the door to foreign tourists.
“In addition to that, there has been a drastic decrease in the number of jobs in inbound support, human resource development, and tour production,” she said. “We hope that the restrictions will be removed as soon as possible, following the Prime Minister’s statement of easing border measures in line with G7 levels.”
Anne Kyle, CEO of Arigato Travel and the operator of the Japan Foreign Tourism Professionals Facebook group, said although the news of the pilot has been greeted with “cautious optimism”, it will have no positive effect for the vast majority of people working in the industry.
“As we hear more news of reopening and easing restrictions on travellers to Japan, there is some hope and positivity in the group,” Kyle told Al Jazeera.
“But allowing about 50 vaccinated-and-boosted travellers to visit as part of organised tours only benefits older and prominent Japanese travel agencies with deep pockets and strong lobbying powers. No one in the 218 members of the [Facebook] group will benefit from the initial reopening.”
Before the pandemic, Japan was riding the crest of a tourism boom, with record inbound visitors between 2012 and 2019 and a market worth about 4 trillion yen ($31bn).
After overseas arrivals topped 32 million in 2019, officials had predicted 40 million visitors in 2020, the year the Tokyo Olympics had been scheduled to take place before the pandemic hit.
Though few expect the Japanese market to immediately bounce back to pre-pandemic levels, Marika Ito, CEO of travel and inbound advertising agency JOINT ONE, has “high hopes” that inbound tourism will start recovering by late June or early July.
“I think the government should consider concrete measures to accelerate the travel and tourism industry as much as possible,” Ito told Al Jazeera.
While authorities have yet to announce a timetable for the broad resumption of tourism, looser restrictions for other arrivals, such as international students and foreign workers, are already on the way.
Last week, the government announced it would double the cap on daily arrivals to 20,000 and ease quarantine and PCR testing regulations for travellers from selected countries starting June 1.
Kawaguchi of Oku Japan said tourism might look different once it returns, with potentially less emphasis on large tour groups than in the past.
“I am not sure this is the start of a new era, but there should be drastic changes in traveller’s demands and preferences,” he said.
Tomiyama, the Kobe-based tour guide, said the return of tourists in large numbers may also take some getting used to for the Japanese public.
Some Japanese, Tomiyama said, could be wary of foreign travellers’ willingness to wear masks and follow Japan’s ubiquitous COVID-19 control measures.
“But we remain eager to welcome people from abroad,” she said. “In fact, more than ever, we strongly hope to welcome tourists to Japan as soon as possible.”