Author: Yusaku Yoshikawa, JIN Corporation

On 10 June 2022, Japan finally started allowing international tourists into the country for the first time in two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Seeking to balance its reopening and preventing the spread of infection, the Japanese government requires all tourists to wear face masks, and to be privately insured and chaperoned.

Members from Japan's shopping and tourism companies greet a group of tourists from Hong Kong upon their arrival at Haneda airport, as Japan gradually opens to tourists after two years of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, in Tokyo, Japan, 26 June 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato).

This reopening is a first step to ending Japan’s strict entry restrictions for tourists. Post-pandemic tourism will force the country to juggle its economic benefits with sustainability. A key challenge will be to make the country more responsible and open-minded to foreigners.

Before the pandemic, Japan’s tourism industry was booming. According to the Japan Tourism Agency, Japan welcomed 31.9 million international visitors in 2019, making Japan the 11th most-visited country in the world and the 3rd most-visited in Asia. Together with a global increase in the number of tourists, the number of international visitors increased nearly five times in a decade.

The visitors were mainly from neighbouring East Asian countries including China (30.1 per cent), South Korea (17.5 per cent), Taiwan (15.3 per cent), and Hong Kong (7.2 per cent), followed by the United States (5.4 per cent) in 2019. Tourist spending was valued at 4.8 trillion yen (US$36 billion) in the same year.

But the number of international visitors plummeted to 4.1 million in 2020 due to the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic, with tourist spending decreasing nearly 85 per cent.

Although it has been supported by government subsidies and the ‘Go-To Japan’ domestic travel campaign, tourism has been undoubtedly one of the hardest-hit industries in the country. The pandemic burst the bubble of the expected demand in tourism during the Tokyo Olympics. Hotel businesses in Japan are mostly small- and medium-scale enterprises and were especially vulnerable to the economic loss. Bringing international tourists back is a strong imperative for the industry.

Part of the reason for the industry’s crisis is Japan’s strict border controls during the pandemic. Entry has been strictly controlled and many foreigners are being locked out of Japan. Some even compared the measures to ‘sakoku’, the country’s national isolationist foreign policy under the Tokugawa shogunate from the 17th to the 19th century.

Still, the Japanese government has strong expectations for the country’s post-COVID-19 tourism. Despite the outbreak complications, the country maintains a target to welcome 60 million international visitors annually by 2030 — aiming to increase the number of visitors by a further 20 million in eight years. But is the country, which is just beginning to reopen to international tourists, ready for this surge?

Attracting international tourists is a double-edged sword. Before the pandemic, Japan was facing a rapid increase in the number of tourists and had already started suffering from over-tourism — the state in which the number of tourists exceeds the community’s tourism carrying capacity.

Popular destinations like Kyoto were being packed by tourists before the pandemic. This ‘tourist pollution’ had sometimes caused tension between tourists and locals. Some locals said they enjoyed the ‘silence’ — sightseeing areas without too many tourists — during the pandemic.

The Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism reported that welcoming too many international tourists leads to troubles such as noise and heavy traffic, irresponsible behaviour of tourists, labour shortages and an increase in garbage, among other issues.

To deal with these challenges, many argue that Japan’s international tourism should start making efforts to ensure its sustainability. They point out that the pandemic has been a good opportunity for the industry’s self-reflection — that the pursuit of increasing tourist numbers cannot go on forever. Indeed, the industry needs to diversify tourist destinations and their busy periods. International tourists in Japan are still concentrated in metropolitan areas like Tokyo and Osaka — causing regional disparities in the economic benefits of tourism — despite signs that the trend is changing.

On 6 June, Okinawa prefecture approved its basic plan for tourism promotion for the fiscal years 2022–2031, emphasising the concepts of quality over quantity and sustainable tourism. This epitomises the idea that the industry’s numbers game is reaching its limit.

At the same time, Japan should not forget that it has been criticised for its cold treatment of foreigners. Over the past 40 years, Japan has accepted only 915 refugees. The country has traditionally inconvenienced foreign workers through decreases in income, layoffs and even repatriation during the pandemic. Some might question the country’s choice to welcome international tourists while these questions remain unresolved.

Japan should tackle these problems more seriously to be more accountable to international visitors. Addressing its own challenges will help the country seem more hospitable and open-minded. This will help establish strong connections with prospective international visitors, eventually contributing to tourism sustainability.

Japan’s reopening to international visitors will herald the start of its post-pandemic tourism. To reap the benefits while dealing with tourism’s various challenges, the government must pursue not only its economic benefits, but also ensure its sustainability.

Yusaku Yoshikawa is an aid consultant at JIN Corporation.