Michiko Miyamoto used to make frequent trips to Europe. But since the onset of the pandemic, the 66-year-old Tokyo dweller has stuck to Japan — and plans to keep it that way, at least for the foreseeable future.
“I am worried about catching Covid, especially if I go to countries where people don’t wear masks anymore,” she said. She caught the virus in November but worries it has continued to mutate. “That scares me.”
Such caution is turning into a problem for Japan’s travel industry, already hobbled by years of Covid-induced restrictions. While border controls have now all but ended — and millions of foreign tourists have flocked to Japan in recent months to take advantage of a weaker yen — many Japanese are still reluctant to travel. The weak currency is one factor; fear of catching Covid is another.
“People’s horizons have shrunk and travellers are now even questioning whether it is appropriate to travel abroad under the current circumstances,” said Hiroyuki Takahashi, chair of the Japan Association of Travel Agents.
Seoul, Taipei and Honolulu have long been popular destinations for Japanese tourists, but according to a survey published by polling group Morning Consult in August, 35 per cent of Japanese respondents said they would not travel again, a significantly higher proportion than the US or China at 14 per cent and South Korea at 15 per cent.
Before the pandemic, about 20mn Japanese citizens travelled overseas annually and spent $21.3bn, according to the UN World Tourism Organization, making the country the world’s 16th-largest source of travel expenditure.
Although Japanese people have started making domestic trips — encouraged by government incentives such as restaurant and hotel discounts for triple-vaccinated travellers — their reluctance to roam abroad reflects cultural norms that were part of the country’s relative success in dealing with coronavirus.
Practices such as strong public compliance with government guidance as well as widespread mask wearing, vaccine uptake and access to healthcare were hailed as the “Japan model” for tackling Covid and credited with keeping case and death tallies low early in the pandemic.
But the messaging around the virus — along with almost three years of near-isolation under pandemic border controls — has sharply reduced desire among Japan’s citizens to get out and see the world.
“Many are concerned about how they are perceived by others for travelling when the infection is still not settled and the possibility [persists] of catching it at the destination,” said Takahashi.
Japanese travel agencies are struggling to entice holidaymakers to go overseas. Five Star Club, a Tokyo-based travel agency focused on international trips, is only generating 10 to 20 per cent of its pre-Covid sales.
“Those who are planning for their honeymoon or are used to travelling abroad are currently coming back, but sales are bouncing back slower than we expected,” the company said. “Japanese are very careful and don’t dare to travel abroad yet.”
In December, 432,100 tourists travelled out of Japan, up from 379,200 in the previous month but still 75 per cent below 2019 levels, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.
The recovery of inbound foreign visitors has been considerably stronger, hitting 1.37mn in December, a 47 per cent jump from the month before, after the government resumed visa-free entry for some individual travellers in October and eased testing restrictions on entry.
Another factor, travel industry executives said, was that even wealthy travellers were putting off overseas holiday plans due to the weak yen, which hit a 32-year low against the dollar last year before regaining some ground in recent months, as well as surging aviation fuel prices.
“International trips have become a luxury, and Japanese people can no longer casually enjoy them,” said Kotaro Toriumi, an aviation and travel analyst.
Tourism industry executives are counting on the government’s plan to downgrade its classification of Covid on May 8 — to the same level as seasonal flu — to ease concerns and encourage Japanese residents to venture abroad again.
Under the new classification, those who test positive for the virus and their close contacts will no longer have to self-isolate and the government will stop issuing emergency declarations that closed businesses such as restaurants and bars.
The government will also scrap guidance for masks indoors unless the wearer has Covid symptoms. Tokyo never imposed a mask mandate during the pandemic, but ingrained cultural habits meant that a vast majority of Japanese people readily adopted masks and have continued to wear them, even outdoors.
“A full-fledged rebound of outbound tourism is only likely to happen when people actually stop wearing masks,” said Toriumi. “The pandemic is still with us in our everyday lives, and that is why people are scared of catching Covid-19 by travelling overseas.”
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