Japan gives green light to non-guided package tours

TOKYO – Japan will conditionally allow foreign tourists to travel without a chaperone from next Wednesday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said.

The daily limit for all arrivals – including Japanese nationals, foreign residents, as well as those entering on business and tourist visas – will be raised to 50,000 from 20,000 people.

Since June, Japan has mandated guided tours for all leisure travellers – a hurdle too high for many prospective visitors who have lamented the lack of freedom.

Japan, which in 2019 received a record 31.9 million visitors, welcomed 8,155 tourists in June and July, said the Immigration Services Agency of Japan. Figures from the Japan Tourism Agency as of last Friday showed that 12,112 tourist visas had been granted for September and another 8,710 for October onwards.

The measures, announced at a news conference on Wednesday, have been cheered as a positive step in Japan’s reopening to tourism, with the country still lagging behind most of the world in easing Covid-19 border controls.

Among the other Group of Seven member countries, Britain, France, Germany and Italy have fully reopened to unvaccinated travellers and have no Covid-19 testing and quarantine requirements.

In the region, Australia, Malaysia and Vietnam have also dropped their border controls.

Mr Kishida, noting that tourism and international exchanges have been on the rebound all over the world, said that the latest steps will “allow foreigners to resume interactions with Japan and to benefit from the weaker yen”.

Yet the impact of the new measures is unclear, given that free-and-easy travel has not resumed and travellers will still be bound by conditions.

First, visas remain mandatory for all travellers. Tourists from all countries must apply for a visa through authorised travel agents by signing up for what Japan describes as a “non-guided package tour”. 

Second, even if travellers no longer have to be chaperoned, the travel agencies that sponsor their visa will likely still have to coordinate and manage itineraries, as well as ensure Covid-19 countermeasures by reporting positive cases.

Third, while Japan is doing away with the requirement for pre-departure polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests from next Wednesday, this is only for those who have received at least three jabs of approved vaccines.

All other travellers must still take a PCR test within 72 hours before their flight. Japan does not recognise Chinese-made vaccines.

Mr Kishida said on Wednesday, without elaborating, that Japan will “further ease border control measures by taking into account the Covid-19 situation at home and abroad, as well as measures taken by other nations”.

Japan has topped the world in new Covid-19 infections for five weeks in a row, according to World Health Organisation data. But the Omicron-driven seventh wave in Japan appears to have peaked.

There were 169,800 cases nationwide on Wednesday, down 30.2 per cent from a week ago.

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