As countries across Asia reopen to foreign travelers, Japan – one of the continent’s most popular destinations – remains securely closed.

That may change quickly. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced at a news conference in London on Thursday that Japan would loosen border controls in June.

Locals often note the easing of border restrictions related to the pandemic, but some in Japan say they are in order to maintain measures.

Even before the pandemic, many locals preferred to travel within the country, and domestic tourism in 2019 amounted to 21.9 trillion yen ($ 167 billion), according to the Japanese Tourism Agency, which is supported by the government.

Although Japanese are now allowed to travel abroad, many “do not want to go abroad” and instead choose to “travel within the country,” said Dai Miyamoto, founder of Japan Localized travel agency.

Izumi Mikami, senior executive director of Japan Space Systems, visited Kyushu and Okinawa, two tourism hotspots before the pandemic. He said he feels safe with fewer tourists.

Some people enjoy the opportunity to be outdoors after spending a lot of time at home.

Shoga Morisige, a university student, 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 has not traveled for a long time … Now it’s almost as if [Covid-19] he’s not really here, “Marishega said.” I don’t think anyone’s afraid of that anymore. “

Others ventured into new directions.

“After moving to Yamagata Prefecture, I started going to places I wouldn’t normally go to, for example, ski resorts … hot springs in the mountains, aquariums and sandy beaches,” said Shion Ichikova, a risk manager at an online firm. Line. .

Tours are changing

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, the number of international travelers to Japan has shrunk from nearly 32 million in 2019 to just 250,000 in 2021.

With the clientele of almost all locals, some travel companies have redesigned their tours to suit local interests.

Japanese travelers have given up visiting major cities and are choosing outdoor recreation that they can “discover on foot,” Miyamoto said. Thus, Japan Localized – which serviced its tours for English-speaking foreigners before the pandemic – collaborated with local travel companies Mai Mai Kyoto and Mai Mai Tokyo to provide hiking tours in Japanese.

People all over Japan also spend time in campsites and onsen – or hot springs are resorts, said Li Xian Jie, chief developer of Craft Tabby.

“Campings have become very popular,” he said. “Renting caravans and selling leisure equipment are going very well because people are more likely to go outside.”

Luxurious onsens, popular with young people, “contribute quite well,” but traditional onsens suffer because older people are “very afraid of Kovid” and don’t go out often, Lee said.

Craft Tabby used to do hiking and biking tours in Kyoto, but after the pandemic it went online. When countries reopened their borders, “online tours did not go well” and participation “dropped to almost zero,” Lee said.

Tourists ’appetites are changing and people are looking for“ niche ”occupations in“ rural areas where they are not as densely populated, ”he said.

Lee now lives south of Kyoto in a village called Rujinmur and plans to tour the rural town as soon as the tourists return.

“We need to think about excursions and activities where people can learn new things,” he added.

“Excess tourism”

According to the Japan Tourism Agency, in 2019 Japan received almost 32 million foreign guests – compared to 6.8 million just ten years ago.

The rapid increase in the number of tourists has led to the fight against over-tourism for major tourists such as the culturally rich city of Kyoto.

Kyoto residents now say “silence has returned,” said Miyamoto, who described cases where foreign tourists spoke loudly and treated locals indecently.

Similarly, Lee said that “a lot of people who were very upset about excessive tourism in Kyoto” are now saying that “just like Kyoto was 20 years ago – good old Kyoto.”

But that may be coming to an end.

Is Japan ready to move on?

The announcement by Prime Minister Kishida may be unwelcome news for part of the Japanese population.

More than 65% of respondents in a recent survey conducted by the Japanese broadcaster NHK, said they agree with the border measures or believe that they need to be strengthened, according to The New York Times.

Local reports suggest that foreign travelers may need several tests on Covid-19 and booking a comprehensive tour, although the JNTO told CNBC that they have not yet received information about it. However, this may not be enough to reassure some residents.

Foreign visitor spending is less than 5% of Japan’s total gross domestic product, so “don’t be surprised if the government makes decisions giving priority to other industries,” said Shintaro Okuno, partner and chairman of Bain & Company Japan, citing why the country remained closed.

Women dressed in kimonos tie omikudi wealth bands near Yasak Shrine during Golden Week celebrations in Kyoto, Japan, on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

Kosuke Akahara Bloomberg | Getty Images

The recent decision is likely to be the most unpopular among senior Japanese citizens, Ichikova said. According to the research organization PRB, almost every third person is over 65 years old, making Japan home to the largest percentage of older people in the world.

“Older people tend to be more biased than young people that Covid-19 is brought by foreigners,” Ichikova said. “It is clear that in Japan, a country of older people, politicians need to tighten borders to protect them physically and psychologically.”

When the pandemic was at its peak, the Japanese were even wary of people from other parts of Japan visiting their hometowns.

“I saw signs in public parks and tourist attractions with the words ‘No cars from outside Wakayama,'” Lee said. “People were very afraid of others from outside the prefecture.”

However, city dwellers may feel differently.

“Japan is too strict and conservative” in the fight against Covid-19, said Mikami, who is in Tokyo.

Miyako Komai, a teacher living in Tokyo, said she was ready to move on.

“We need to invite more foreigners so that Japan’s economy can recover,” she said. “I do not agree that we want to strengthen measures … We need to start living a normal life.”

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