TOKYO (AFP, BLOOMBERG) - Japan announced on Thursday (May 26) it will reopen to tourists from 36 countries starting June 10, ending a two-year pandemic closure, but travellers will only be allowed in with tour groups.
The decision comes after the government last week said it would test allowing small group tours with visitors from the United States, Australia, Thailand and Singapore from this month.
On Thursday, the government revised border controls to resume accepting package tours from 36 countries and regions where the Covid-19 situation is relatively stable, it said in a statement.
The countries include Britain, Spain, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia.
Japan will also expand the number of airports that accept international flights to seven, adding Naha in its southern Okinawa prefecture and Chitose near Sapporo in northern Hokkaido.
“Active exchanges between people are the foundation of the economy and society,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in a speech at the Future of Asia conference in Tokyo.
"From the 10th of next month we will restart the admission of tourists on guided package tours.”
Japan has already announced it would double its cap on overseas arrivals to 20,000 a day starting in June, far below the levels seen before the pandemic. Tour groups are not expected to be counted in that figure, local media reported.
Mr Kishida pledged in a London speech to make it as easy to enter Japan as other Group of Seven wealthy nations.
Mr Kishida has come under pressure from business lobbies to further open the borders, as the travel industry is losing out on what could have been a windfall from the weak yen.
The premier must at the same time avoid alienating a public wary of the potential health implications ahead of a July election for the upper house of parliament.
A poll published by the Mainichi newspaper last weekend found 43 per cent of respondents were in favour of relaxing border controls, while 41 per cent were against the idea.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said this month that the easing of restrictions would mean about 80 per cent of arrivals would be able to enter the country without undergoing testing on arrival, or quarantine.
Countries and regions will be divided into three categories - red, yellow and blue - depending on their assessed virus risk, according to a joint statement from the Foreign Ministry and other ministries.
Travellers arriving from countries or regions on the blue list would be able to bypass quarantine as long as they pass a pre-departure PCR test, according to the Foreign Ministry.
Those on the yellow list would require proof of vaccination with selected vaccines to skip quarantine.
The South China Morning Post reported on Thursday that Japan is considering putting Hong Kong on the blue list, citing an unidentified person.
The move comes after the government allowed some small package tours for overseas visitors to be conducted on a trial basis this month.
Japan has fared relatively well during the pandemic, recording just over 30,000 deaths from the virus so far, compared with about 179,000 in Britain, which has a population approximately half as large.
Japan welcomed a record 31.9 million foreign visitors in 2019 and had been on track to achieve its goal of 40 million in 2020 before the pandemic hit.