Japan eases foreign tourism ban, allows guided package tours

TOKYO (AP) — Japan eased its borders for foreign tourists on Friday and began accepting visa applications, but only for those on guided tour packages who are willing to follow the wearing of masks and other anti-virus measures as the country cautiously tries to balance business and infection worries.

Friday is the first day to begin the necessary entry procedures and arrivals are not expected until the end of June at the earliest, although the airport’s immigration and quarantine offices have been on the lookout of any possible arrival.

The Japan Tourism Agency says tours are accepted from 98 countries and regions, including the United States, Britain, China, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore, which are considered low risk. of infection.

The partial resumption of international tourism in Japan that was halted during the coronavirus pandemic is being conducted under guidelines based on an experiment conducted in late May. It involved around 50 participants, mostly travel agency employees from Australia, Singapore, Thailand and the United States.

In one case, a tour for a four-member group was canceled when one of the attendees tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Japan.

“We hope the resumption of inbound tourism will help boost the local economy,” Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Tetsuo Saito said on Friday. “We will continue to make efforts to revive tourism demand while balancing infection control measures and social and economic activities.”

According to the guidelines, participants are asked to wear face masks most of the time and to carry insurance to cover medical expenses in case they contract COVID-19. The rules do not set a cap on the number of people in a group, but tour guides must be present throughout the tour.

After facing criticism that its strict border controls were xenophobic, Japan began easing restrictions earlier this year. On June 1, it doubled its daily entry cap to 20,000 people per day, including Japanese citizens, foreign students and some business travelers.

The daily limit will include package tour participants for the time being, and officials say it will be some time before overseas visitors can come to Japan for free individual tourism.

Japan-based business groups representing the Group of Seven countries and the European Union, in a joint statement on Friday, welcomed the gradual resumption of foreign tourism to Japan, but called on the government to “further relax the measures of border control to facilitate an environment where people, goods, money, and digital technologies can flow freely, thereby promoting Japan’s economic growth.

They called on Japan to follow the examples of other G-7 countries and resume individual tourism, eliminate testing at airports, lift the daily entry cap and resume international flights in more countries. a dozen regional airports.

Japan’s tourism business has remained dormant during the pandemic and even though the country welcomes tourists and their spending, infection problems persist among Japanese people, especially in popular tourist destinations.

Unlike most Western countries where mask wearing has been largely phased out, most people continue to wear them even in situations, such as outdoors in low-traffic settings, where they are no longer required.

Japan is still reporting more than 10,000 new cases of COVID-19 a day, although the number in Tokyo is below 2,000.

The latest mask-wearing rules require people to wear them on public transport, in hospitals and other public establishments. People can remove their mask outside when others are not around or not speaking loudly.

It is unclear how popular package travel options will be with foreign tourists, most of whom must apply for tourist visas which can take weeks to obtain. But the yen is trading at a 20-year low against the US dollar and weak against other major currencies, which would make trips to the high-cost country a bargain.

Foreign tourist arrivals fell more than 90% in 2020, from a record 31.9 million the previous year, nearly wiping out the pre-pandemic inbound tourism market of more than 4 trillion yen (30 billion yen). dollars).

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