The 22 trillion yen question: When will Japan reopen to foreign tourists?

More than two years since Japan closed its borders to tourists due to the pandemic, the country is counting the costs. A Kansai University professor puts the loss from the lack of foreign visitors at 10.96 trillion yen in 2020 alone, suggesting that over two years it could be at least 22 trillion yen.

With that in mind, many are wondering when Japan will reopen its borders to tourists.

There is growing momentum towards this step, with private sector advisers to a government council urging Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration on April 27 to gradually reopen Japan’s borders to international tourists.

“To recover from the substantial decline in the number of foreign tourists, (the government) should resume tourist entries in phases,” said the proposal from business representatives, including the chairman of Japan’s main business lobby, which has been submitted to the Economic and Fiscal Policy Council. .

The fact that traveling to Japan has become more affordable due to the weakening yen adds to the sense of loss, but the country is unable to cash in due to border closures.

The Japanese government spokesman said he was aware of growing calls to ease border restrictions.

“We are aware that cross-border travel is essential for Japanese economic activities,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said at a press conference on Thursday. “We will make appropriate decisions, taking into account quarantine and testing capacity (at airports), the spread of the virus at home and abroad, and border and entry restrictions. ‘other countries.”

Experts say the decision whether or not to open Japan’s borders to foreign tourists is highly political.

“Quarantine (screening at airports) in Japan is strict compared to other countries,” said Koji Wada, a professor at the International University of Health and Wellness, who is also a member of the advisory board of the Ministry of Health. “The administration must make a political decision after weighing the pros and cons of opening borders to tourists.”

With an Upper House election due in July, Kishida is caught between a rock and a hard place – companies are pressuring him to open borders, while polls show the public is unsure relaxation of entry restrictions.

In an NHK poll in March, 30% of respondents said Japan should not ease restrictions, while 35% said government border restrictions – daily arrivals at the time had been raised. at 7,000 with no tourists allowed – were “proper”. Only 27% said border restrictions should be eased even more.

Haneda Airport Friday. Private sector advisers to a government council have urged Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration to gradually open Japan’s borders to international tourists. | BLOOMBERG

Since Japan opened its borders in March to business travelers as well as foreign students and scholars who have sponsors, many people abroad have wondered when tourists will be allowed in.

But much to their frustration, Japan only eased restrictions in small steps, with the daily arrival cap – which includes Japanese nationals and foreign residents – gradually raised from 3,500 to 5,000, then to 7,500. and now at 10,000.

Conversely, other countries have completely opened their borders to foreign tourists in recent months, particularly in Europe. Britain completely lifted its COVID-19 border restrictions in March, while the United States has in principle allowed foreign tourists to enter if they are vaccinated and provide a negative virus result following a test carried out before leaving. Meanwhile, China is among the countries that have maintained a strict border policy, allowing only a handful of foreign workers and other special cases such as those attending family funerals.

Kazunobu Ouchi, an executive with the Japan Travel and Health Society’s academic group, says the difference is understandable given that the number of reported COVID-19 cases in Japan is low compared to other countries.

“A pandemic is widely considered to subside when more than 60% of the population has been infected with the virus,” Ouchi said.

“The figure is still low in Japan compared to other countries, so it makes sense that borders remain closed even though other countries have started to open their borders,” he said.

Japan has reported a total of about 7.8 million cases since the start of the pandemic, which equates to about 7% of the population. Assuming there are twice as many unreported cases, the figure is still well below 60%, Ouchi said. By comparison, the United States has reported about 81 million cases, equivalent to about 24% of the population.

A separate study showed that almost 60% of the population in the United States has recently been infected with the coronavirus.

According to a report from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on April 26, 57.7% of the American population was infected with the virus during the omicron wave in February, compared to 33.5% in December. The figure is based on a seroprevalence study, which examines antibodies in the blood by natural infection – not vaccines – and can help detect asymptomatic or unreported infections.

A similar seroprevalence study in Japan conducted in February covering five prefectures – Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Miyagi and Aichi – showed that 4.3% of the population had antibodies, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, which published the results on April 27.

Haneda Airport Friday.  Japan's economic loss from closing its borders to foreign tourists due to the pandemic amounted to 10.96 trillion yen in 2020 alone, according to an estimate by a Kansai University professor. .  |  BLOOMBERG
Haneda Airport Friday. Japan’s economic loss from closing its borders to foreign tourists due to the pandemic amounted to 10.96 trillion yen in 2020 alone, according to an estimate by a Kansai University professor. . | BLOOMBERG

Vaccination of the population is also effective, but studies have shown that currently available vaccines, which were developed against the initial form of the coronavirus, are less effective against the omicron variant, Ouchi said.

Still, Ouchi says Japan may be able to open its borders to foreign tourists once the sixth wave ends, perhaps in mid-May.

With more countries opening their borders to tourists, Japan will likely face pressure from those countries to reciprocate, Ouchi said. “If the sixth wave has taken hold, it will be easier” for Japan to do so, he said.

As was the case before Japan opened its borders to foreign students and business travellers, one frustration for people wishing to come to Japan is the unpredictability of the situation – not knowing when and how the decision will be made, and under what conditions.

The criteria that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other senior government officials have mentioned – number of COVID-19 cases at home and abroad, and border restrictions in other countries – remain too vague for people can understand them.

To ease concerns about simultaneously opening borders, Japan could start by allowing visitors to go on package tours with tour leaders and guides, then open up to more people in phases, Wada said.

“The important thing is that the government shows the roadmap,” he said. “Once the basic guidance is written, the details can be worked out by experts.”

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