Japan to allow non-guided group tours from September

A pedestrian in traditional dress crosses the street in Shinjuku district of Tokyo on Aug 16, 2022. (AFP photo)

Japan will allow non-guided package tours from all countries from Sept 7 and more than double the number of people it permits to enter daily as it further rolls back some of the strictest Covid-19 border controls among major economies.

The moves announced Wednesday by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, however, do not allow for entry of individual tourists. The premier also didn’t lay out any changes for visa restrictions that place a high bar for entering the country.

Kishida said the daily entry cap would be raised to 50,000 people from the current 20,000. He also said he wanted to ease border controls to spur visits from people trying to take advantage of a weak yen -- eventually loosening border restrictions to the same level as other members of the Group of Seven industrialised nations.

Kishida’s government began to allow limited numbers into the country from June, subject to strict rules such as being part of a package tour with a guide and wearing face masks. Japan had about 246,000 foreign visitors last year, a far cry from the record 31.9 million in 2019. 

Participants in the non-guided package tours would still need to adhere to itineraries set by travel agencies, and individuals won’t be allowed to go off exploring on their own under the relaxed rules. The ongoing restrictions are more stringent than places such as Australia, Singapore and the United Kingdom, which impose few if any measures to entry, and are getting a head start in reviving their beleaguered tourism industries. 

Airlines, hotels and retailers in Japan are all eager to regain the business they lost. The small trickle of foreigners allowed into the country last year spent 120 billion yen ($866 million). In 2019, they spent 4.8 trillion yen, or 40 times more, according to the Japan Tourism Agency.

Tourism-related stocks rose after Kishida’s announcement, with airlines ANA Holdings Inc closing the morning session in Tokyo 2.9% higher and Japan Airlines Co up 3.4%.

Last week, Kishida said that from Sept 7 Japan would scrap a requirement to show a negative Covid-19 result to enter the country for travellers who have received three vaccine doses. 

While the testing requirement is being relaxed, there’s still the issue of entry visas. Japan’s border is currently only open for people with Japanese nationality, as well as those with long-term and pre-issued tourism visas. It stopped visa waivers for applicable passports during the pandemic.

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