TOKYO - Japan will welcome foreign tourists on package tours from this month as part of a trial to see how well travel agencies can “manage behaviour”, the Japan Tourism Agency said in a statement on Tuesday (May 17).
Travellers from the United States, Australia, Thailand and Singapore who have received three vaccination doses will be able to enter the country for tourism, the statement said.
About 50 people from all four countries will be allowed in the trial phase, the Yomiuri daily reported, adding that about 10 to 15 tour groups are expected.
This comes ahead of a planned further easing of border curbs next month, subject to domestic and global Covid-19 case numbers.
Visitors must purchase their own medical insurance and take part in packaged tours with predetermined itineraries approved by the government. They are to be accompanied by a tour guide throughout.
“So as to gather necessary information for the full resumption of tourism to Japan, we will carry out a trial project in the form of small-group package tours in May, in which the travel agency will control movement,” the agency said.
“We will verify how to ensure that tourists will comply with infection control measures and emergency response procedures, while formulating guidelines for travel agencies and accommodation facilities.”
The four countries are recognised as having lower Covid-19 risk of mutant strains, and are key priority markets for Japan.
The agency added that further details will be decided in conjunction with the Japan Association of Travel Agents.
“The international flow of people between Japan and other countries, including tourists, is extremely important for Japan’s economic activities and regional revitalisation,” Tourism Minister Tetsuo Saito said on Tuesday.
Individual tourists will not be allowed in for the time being.
Foreign tourists have been shut out of Japan for much of the Covid-19 pandemic. Currently, travellers are allowed in only for work and study, as well as exceptional humanitarian reasons.
Polls have shown that most members of the public support the tough border measures, though sentiment has recently begun to ease towards welcoming foreigners.
A survey by the Yomiuri newspaper last weekend showed that 51 per cent of respondents support an easing of border restrictions, while another 41 per cent felt that the tough restrictions should be maintained.
Another poll by the Japan News Network this month showed 48 per cent in favour of easing restrictions with 38 per cent against.
But as recently as March, a survey by broadcaster NHK showed that 65 per cent either felt the restrictions were appropriate or should be tightened even further.
Rather than a grand reopening, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is treading carefully with an eye on public sentiment leading towards a national Upper House election scheduled for July 10.
His two predecessors, Mr Yoshihide Suga and Mr Shinzo Abe, were done in by their perceived woeful management of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Covid-19 infection numbers have stabilised in Japan, with a seven-day average of 37,954 cases as at Monday. The corresponding figure for Tokyo, with a population of 14 million people, was 3,866 cases.
As debate rages in Japan over the need for masks, a government advisory last week said that masks can be removed outdoors but only in socially distanced settings.
Media reports say that Japan is gearing up for a further easing of Covid-19 border control measures next month before a broader welcome of more visitors in summer after the election.
Japan plans to double the daily arrival limit to 20,000 people and exempt travellers from some countries from on-arrival polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing if they produce a negative pre-departure test.
Currently, Japan imposes a daily entry ceiling of 10,000 people, including returning residents. All must have a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure and must also submit to another PCR test upon arrival.
They can be exempted from quarantine if they test negative on arrival, travel from a country deemed to have low Covid-19 risk, and are triple-vaccinated with vaccines approved by Japan.
Japan recognises the Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Novavax Covid-19 vaccines.
Before the outbreak of the pandemic, Japan welcomed a record 31.9 million foreign visitors in 2019, who spent a total of 4.81 trillion yen (S$51.5 billion).
The country aims to welcome 60 million people annually by 2030 who would spend 15 trillion yen.