As countries in Asia reopen to international travellers, Japan – one of the continent’s most popular destinations – remains firmly closed.
That could soon change. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced at a press conference in London on Thursday that Japan would ease border controls in June.
Locals often celebrate the easing of pandemic-related border restrictions, but some in Japan say they are okay with keeping the measures in place.
Even before the pandemic, many locals preferred to travel within the country, with domestic tourism totaling 21.9 trillion yen ($167 billion) in 2019, according to the government-backed Japan Tourism Agency.
Although Japanese people are currently allowed to travel overseas, many ‘don’t want to go overseas’ and instead choose to ‘travel within the country’, said Dai Miyamoto, the agency’s founder. Travel Japan Localized.
Izumi Mikami, senior executive director of Japan Space Systems, visited Kyushu Island and Okinawa Island, two tourist hotspots before the pandemic. He said he felt safer with fewer tourists.
Some people take the opportunity to be outdoors after spending a lot of time at home.
Shogo Morishige, a university student, has made several ski trips to Nagano – the prefecture that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics – and said it was “surprisingly crowded” with locals.
“Everyone like us hadn’t traveled in a long time…Right now, it’s almost like [Covid-19] isn’t really there,” Morishige said. “I don’t think anyone is too scared of it anymore.”
Others have ventured to new destinations.
“After moving to Yamagata Prefecture, I started going to places I wouldn’t normally go to, like ski resorts…hot springs in the mountains, aquariums, and sandy beaches” , said Shion Ichikawa, a risk management employee of the Internet Line company. .
International travelers to Japan have fallen from nearly 32 million in 2019 to just 250,000 in 2021, according to Japan’s National Tourism Organization.
With a clientele consisting of almost all locals, some travel companies have redesigned their tours to conform to local interests.
Japanese travelers have avoided visiting big cities and are opting for outdoor experiences they can “discover on foot”, Miyamoto said. So Japan Localized – which offered its tours to English-speaking foreigners before the pandemic – collaborated with local tour operators Mai Mai Kyoto and Mai Mai Tokyo to offer walking tours in Japanese.
Across Japan, people are also spending time at campsites and onsen – or hot spring – spas, said Lee Xian Jie, chief developer of travel company Craft Tabby.
“Camping sites have become very popular,” he said. “Caravan rentals and the sale of outdoor equipment are doing very well because people are going outside a lot more.”
Luxury onsens popular with young people are “doing pretty well”, but traditional onsens are suffering as older people are “quite scared of Covid” and not going out much, Lee said.
Craft Tabby used to organize walking and cycling tours in Kyoto, but moved online when the pandemic hit. As countries reopen their borders, “online visits haven’t gone well” and attendance has “dropped to almost zero,” Lee said.
Tourist appetites are changing and people are looking for “niche” activities in “rural areas where they are not so densely populated”, he said.
Lee now lives south of Kyoto in a village called Ryujinmura and plans to organize tours in the rural town once the tourists return.
“We have to think about tours and activities here where people can explore new things,” he added.
Japan welcomed nearly 32 million international visitors in 2019, up from just 6.8 million a decade earlier, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.
The rapid increase in tourist numbers has caused major attractions, such as the culturally rich city of Kyoto, to struggle with overtourism.
Kyoto residents now say “silence has returned,” said Miyamoto, who recounted instances of foreign tourists speaking loudly and being discourteous to locals.
Similarly, Lee said that “a lot of people who used to be quite upset about over-tourism in Kyoto” now say “it’s like Kyoto 20 years ago – good old Kyoto”.
But that may be coming to an end.
Is Japan ready to move on?
Prime Minister Kishida’s announcement may not be good news for part of the Japanese population.
According to the New York Times, more than 65% of respondents to a recent survey by Japanese television broadcaster NHK said they agreed with the border measures or thought they should be tightened.
Local reports indicate that international travelers may need multiple Covid-19 tests and a tour package booking to enter, although JNTO told CNBC they have yet to hear back on this. Still, that may not be enough to appease some residents.
Spending by overseas visitors contributes less than 5% of Japan’s overall gross domestic product, so it’s not necessarily surprising that the government is making decisions prioritizing other industries, said Shintaro Okuno, partner and president of Bain & Company Japan, explaining why the country remained closed.
Women wearing kimonos tie makeshift “omikuji” bands outside the Yasaka Shrine during the Golden Week holiday in Kyoto, Japan, Tuesday, May 3, 2022.
Kosuke Okahara | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The recent decision is likely to be the most unpopular with Japan’s senior citizens, Ichikawa said. Nearly one in three people are over the age of 65, making Japan the highest percentage of elderly people in the world, according to research organization PRB.
“Older people tend to have more prejudice than younger people about Covid-19 being brought by strangers,” Ichikawa said. “It is understandable that in Japan – a country of old people – politicians have to tighten the borders to protect them physically and psychologically.”
When the pandemic was at its peak, the Japanese were wary even of people from other parts of Japan visiting their hometowns.
“I’ve seen signs at public parks and tourist attractions saying ‘no cars from outside Wakayama,'” Lee said. “People were very afraid of others outside the prefecture.”
However, residents living in cities may feel differently.
“Japan is too strict and conservative” in controlling Covid-19, said Mikami, who is based in Tokyo.
Miyako Komai, a teacher who lives in Tokyo, said she was ready to move on.
“We need to invite more foreign people” so that the Japanese economy can recover, she said. “I don’t agree that we want the measures to be tightened… We have to start living a normal life.”