TOKYO (AP) — Japan on Friday eased its borders for foreign tourists and began accepting visa applications, but only for those on guided package tours who are willing to follow mask-wearing and other anti-virus measures as the country cautiously tries balance business and infection. concerns.
Friday is the first day to start the necessary entry formalities and arrivals are not expected until the end of June at the earliest, although immigration and quarantine offices at the airport are on standby for possible arrivals.
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 to be at low risk of infection.
Japan’s partial resumption of international tourism that was halted during the coronavirus pandemic is taking place under guidelines based on an experiment conducted in late May. It involved some 50 participants, mostly employees of travel agencies from Australia, Singapore, Thailand and the United States.
In one case, a four-member group tour was canceled when one of the participants tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Japan.
“We hope that the resumption of inbound tourism will help stimulate the local economy,” Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Tetsuo Saito told reporters on Friday. “We will continue to strive to recover tourism demand while balancing anti-infective measures and social and economic activities.”
Under the guidelines, participants are asked to wear face masks most of the time and to purchase insurance to cover medical costs should they contract COVID-19. The rules do not set a limit for the number of people in a group, but tour guides must be present for the entire 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 admission limit 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 foreign visitors can come to Japan for free individual sightseeing.
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 in Japan, but called on the government to “further relax border control measures to facilitate an environment where people, goods, money and digital technologies can move freely, thereby fueling Japan’s economic growth.”
They called on Japan to follow the examples of other G7 countries and resume individual tourism, end airport testing, remove the daily entry limit and resume international flights at more than a dozen regional airports.
Japan’s inbound tourism business has been dormant during the pandemic, and while the country welcomes tourists and their spending, concerns of infection among Japanese people remain, especially in popular tourist destinations.
Unlike most Western countries, where the use of masks has been largely abandoned, most people continue to wear them even in situations, such as outdoors in uncrowded places, where they are no longer requested.
Japan is still reporting more than 10,000 new COVID-19 cases daily, though the number in Tokyo is below 2,000.
The latest mask wearing rules require people to wear them on public transportation systems, in hospitals and other public facilities. People can remove their masks outdoors when no other people are around or talking loudly.
It’s unclear how popular package tour options will be with foreign tourists, most of whom have to apply for tourist visas that can take weeks to obtain. But the yen is trading at 20-year lows against the US dollar and weak against other major currencies, which would make travel in the high-cost country a bargain.
Foreign tourist arrivals fell more than 90% in 2020 from a record 31.9 million the previous year, almost wiping out the pre-pandemic inbound tourism market of more than 4 trillion yen ($30 billion). .