Tourist arrivals in Japan down by more than half in February, worst is yet to come

Japan's goal of attracting 40 million foreign visitors this year appears increasingly out of reach. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO/NISEKO - Arrivals in Japan were down by 58.3 per cent last month compared to a year ago, Japan National Tourism Organisation data showed on Thursday (March 19), as the coronavirus pandemic stopped many foreign tourists from visiting the country.

Foreign visitor numbers declined for the fifth consecutive month, down to 1.09 million. However, the worst is yet to come as countries worldwide begin imposing wider travel restrictions this month, in order to fight the Covid-19 outbreak.

In the single largest plunge, arrivals from China were down by 87.9 per cent, followed by arrivals from South Korea declining by 79.9 per cent. Singaporean visitors registered a 24.9 per cent decline.

Japan's goal of attracting 40 million foreign visitors this year appears increasingly out of reach, with growing uncertainty regarding whether the Tokyo Olympic Games will take place as planned. Japan drew 31.9 million visitors last year.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso called the Games "cursed", noting that extraordinary circumstances overshadow the Games every 40 years. The 1940 Tokyo Games were cancelled due to World War II, while the 1980 Moscow Games were boycotted by 65 nations, including China and the United States.

The coronavirus outbreak has left the aviation, hospitality and food and beverage industries reeling from their losses. A tally by public broadcaster NHK showed that Japan has registered 924 domestic cases of Covid-19 thus far, with 32 deaths.

While foreign visitor numbers are on the decline, appetite for domestic travel has also been on the wane as local governments urged their citizens to stay home.

Both All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL) have said they will cancel more domestic flights as travel demand dries up. ANA will cancel 1,360 flights on 42 domestic routes between Friday (March 20) and March 31, while JAL will cancel 1,468 flights on 60 domestic routes between Friday (March 20) and March 28.

Tourist sites that have in the past been overrun with visitors, like Kyoto's Arashiyama bamboo forest, have now launched campaigns trying to woo visitors back.

However, rush hour commuters are still packed like sardines in Tokyo trains, and areas like Shibuya remain crowded, although a majority of those who go out put on masks.

Japan has been screening for Covid-19 cases at a fraction of its testing capacity.

With a three-day weekend starting on Friday (March 20) and cherry blossoms forecast to be in full bloom in Tokyo, the country's seriousness regarding "social distancing" will be assessed.

Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) picnics and gatherings are traditionally popular, although some of the most visited areas, including Ueno Park and Nakameguro, have called off their annual festivals.

Hokkaido governor Naomichi Suzuki lifted on Thursday (March 19)the three-week state of emergency declared on Feb 28, but urged residents to continue staying at home, saying that present risks are now "under a certain level of control".

There are 156 confirmed coronavirus cases in Hokkaido thus far and six deaths.

Businesses in Niseko, a town popular among winter sports enthusiasts for its powdery snow, remain unprecedentedly empty for this time of the year. Seats were readily available in restaurants that would typically have required reservations.

Singaporean restaurateur Willin Low, who runs mod-Singaporean eatery Roketto (Japanese for 'rocket') during the ski season in Niseko, told The Straits Times that absence of customers has led him to close his eatery three weeks ahead of schedule.

Mr Low, whose 30-seat restaurant serves up dishes such as laksa cooked in snow crab broth near the ordinarily-busy Hirafu village, said he has never seen the area so empty before. He added: "At the worst I only served seven bowls in one day."

Over in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, the five-star luxury Keio Plaza Hotel has also suffered a steep decline in customers.

Public relations manager Keiko Kawashima estimated that the occupancy rate last month plunged 34 per cent from a year ago.

She told The Straits Times that dwindling customer numbers forced the hotel to shorten the opening hours of its restaurants. Hygiene concerns have led buffet restaurants to have dishes served a la carte to the patrons instead.

"About three quarters of our guests are foreigners, but domestic demand has also been declining with a series of cancellations for events," Ms Kawashima said, but mentioned that the hotel has gone ahead with its spring cherry blossom event to make it more enjoyable for guests despite the situation.

"I think the impact is going to be far greater, but because there is still no end in sight, it is impossible to predict how bad we will be affected", she added.

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