Japan Reopening for Guided Tours

For over the past year, we’ve been chronicling every little update to Japan’s border closure in When Will Japan Reopen for Travel? Well, that’ll happen in June 2022…but with the colossal asterisk that Japan will only accept guided tour groups.

It’s not quite time to retire that post, but this is technically a reopening to some degree. As such, we’re separating the news out here for the handful of you willing and somehow able to take a guided tour of Japan on three weeks’ notice.

At a press conference in Tokyo on Thursday, May 26, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that Japan will resume accepting foreign tourists from June 10, 2022. He stated that the country will continue to ease its border controls.

“Step by step we will aim to accept tourists as we did in normal times, taking into consideration the status of infections,” said Kishida.

He went on to indicate that now that proper health care measures are in place and the country has bought time to vaccinate the population, Japan’s previously strict border controls are no longer necessary.

The move to reopen Japan for package tour groups comes after the country began a series of trial of “demonstration” tours involving foreign tourists on Tuesday. People from the United States, Australia, Thailand and Singapore are participating in the demonstration tours, which involve a grand total of 50 individuals.

All of the participants of the demonstration tours are members of the media or travel agency officials (e.g. JTB USA), split across 15 groups sightseeing in 12 prefectures. The first two groups arrived from the United States in Japan on Tuesday, with 6 from Hawaii and 1 from Los Angeles.

Policies for the guided group tours of Japan beginning on June 10, 2022 will be identical to those for the demonstration tours. All visitors will need to be vaccinated three times, including a booster shot, to participate in the tours, which each consist of a small number of people.

As part of infection prevention measures, Japan’s government has compiled guidelines for accommodation facilities and other tourism businesses, and plans to call on inbound visitors to take anti-virus measures such as wearing masks, officials said. A correspondence system is also in place up for cases where someone tests positive mid-tour.

The government’s decision will set the stage for resuming inbound tourism for the first time in over two years. Still, relaxations will be implemented in stages and it will likely take time to again see a large number of foreign tourists, and self-guided tourists are still banned.

To that point, Japan is currently the only Group of Seven country still refusing to allow the normal entry of foreign tourists. Its policies remain more in line with authoritarian countries than major democracies.

In terms of commentary, we’ll reiterate here what we said about the demonstration tours when those were announced. We don’t see these tours as anything more than theater. The primary motivation is likely shaping public opinion, resetting expectations, and gradually easing voters into the border reopening.

These tours are likely performative: photo ops and footage for NHK segments to demonstrate to a weary public that tourists have the ability to wear masks and not become vectors for a superspreader event.

Logistically, the tours make little sense as an actual means of restarting Japan’s battered tourism industry. For one thing, each will have an incredibly low number of participants yet will require tremendous resources for monitoring and documenting their every movement to ensure compliance.

For another thing, there’s the quick turnaround time. These tours will begin on June 10, and they are not yet available for booking anywhere that we see. (While JTB Los Angeles and Honolulu are both on the current demonstration tours and sharing photos on social media, neither have opened up these packages yet. To the contrary, they are booking for December 10–all earlier tours have been cancelled.)

It’s unlikely that there is significant overlap between people who can travel on short notice and people who want the “comfort and convenience” of a guided tour. No knock on those who enjoy guided tours, but their participants are typically the opposite of spontaneous.

As such, it still seems like the resumption of guided tours is a perfunctory step, not being undertaken for its own sake, but as a demonstrative step. One to coddle Japanese voters who fear outsiders.

To that point, the approval rating for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet rose to 61.5%, the highest since he took office last October last year, a Kyodo News survey showed this week.

Among other things, the survey showed that 65.5% of respondents favor the relaxation of the border closure. This is a significant reversal from even last month, when that was below 50%. In another turn of events, 53.7% now believe that Japan should prioritize economic activity over antivirus precautions.

Perhaps most stunning of all is that 53.9% back the government’s recent decision to change its policy on masks, now saying that wearing them outdoors is not necessary.

In another step to lay the groundwork for further reopening, Japan is easing testing and quarantine rules for arrivals. Countries are now divided into three groups based on risk levels, with the overwhelming majority falling into the lowest-risk blue group.

Travelers from the aforementioned blue group will be exempt from testing upon arrival in Japan and quarantining at home. They will still need to show a pre-departure negative test result.

Arrivals from countries in the moderate-risk yellow group need to be tested upon arrival and stay for 3 days at home or quarantine facilities. However, this does not apply to people who have received their third vaccine dose.

Finally, those coming from countries in the highest-risk red group will take tests when entering Japan and must stay for 3 days at quarantine facilities. The goal for the relaxed arrival process was to make the entry of visitors smooth and facilitate a higher number of daily arrivals, as it would reduce the burden on Japan’s testing and quarantine infrastructure.

Japan will also double the maximum daily limit on eligible overseas arrivals to 20,000 from its current 10,000 level in June 2022. Kishida also said international flights to and from the Naha and New Chitose airports, gateways to popular tourist spots in Okinawa and Hokkaido, will restart in June.

However, no date for lifting tourist entry restrictions on individuals has been set forth by Japan’s government.

Japan’s business community has been pushing the country to ease entry restrictions and allow in foreign tourists since last year. Masakazu Tokura, chairman of Keidanren, the nation’s biggest business lobby, voiced his expectation Monday that Japan will further ease its border controls.

“The 20,000 cap is just a process. I expect it will become 50,000 and then 100,000, and eventually there will be free and open border controls similar to that of G7 countries,” Tokura said.

Last week, Shinichi Inoue, president of All Nippon Airways Co., welcomed the end of border control measures in Japan.

He applauded the increased arrival cap and streamlined process for entry, while also saying: “We truly hope all restrictions will be eased and scrapped in a speedy manner from now on as well.”

Several travel industry groups jointly submitted a letter urging the transport ministry to resume inbound tourism.

“At present, the countries that do not allow tourists to enter are a minority, including Japan and China,” the letter said. “If this continues, Japan will lose in the worldwide competition to attract tourists.”

In 2019, foreign visitors to Japan peaked at