Japan maintains tourism freeze despite drop in virus cases

Tokyo – Filled with pink and fuzzy things and teddy bears, 6% DOKIDOKI, a small store in the heart of Tokyo’s Harajuku district, is full of “kawaii”, the Japanese word for “cute.”

What it does not have enough, as in Zero, are foreign tourists. And he could certainly use some.

Like much of Asia, including Taiwan, Vietnam, and Australia, Japan’s borders remain closed to tourists. As other Asian countries set to reopen, Japan’s borders will likely remain closed for some time. It is a test for the many businesses that have come to depend on foreign tourists, who numbered 32 million in 2019, before the pandemic.

“Foreigners understand ‘kawaii’ more emotionally than Japanese people. They use ‘Kawaii!’

“We had so many foreign customers before the pandemic,” she said. “Then suddenly no one could come. “

6% DOKIDOKI opened 26 years ago and has a loyal following: When it was put at risk by the pandemic slowdown, supporters in Japan and abroad launched crowdfunding campaigns to keep it afloat. It is also boosting mail order sales and introduced colorful face masks in a flurry of psychedelic hues and bear-shaped pouches useful for carrying hand sanitizers.

Yoshida doesn’t expect foreign visitors to return until cherry blossom season next year.

It might even be optimistic.

While mandatory quarantine requirements have been relaxed somewhat after the number of new coronavirus cases has risen from hundreds a day to a few dozen a day in Tokyo, unlike the Indonesian resort island of Bali and some destinations in Thailand, Japan remains off limits to foreign tourists. .

Japan also excluded foreign students and business travelers. A big, much-criticized exception was made for athletes and officials arriving for the Tokyo Olympics earlier this year.

People remain nervous about overseas travel in this island “island culture,” said Kotaro Toriumi, tourism analyst and author of travel books.

Toriumi, who teaches at Teikyo University in Tokyo, believes foreign tourism won’t pick up for a year or two, even though around 73% of Japanese are fully vaccinated. This is a much higher rate than most other Asian countries except Singapore.

Even if the borders reopen, tourism will not pick up if Japan continues to require 10-day quarantines for travelers arriving from overseas, he said.

“Even a quarantine day will stifle tourism,” said Toriumi, just back from a business trip to France, still the world’s No. 1 tourist destination.

It all depends on whether the COVID-19 cases will be contained. Medical experts fear the infections will reappear in another seasonal wave.

For now, the government is preparing to relaunch its “GoTo” promotions for domestic travel, which offer discounts for travel, accommodation and other expenses. Last year, the program was canceled after five months when the virus reappeared.

The campaign has reportedly generated nearly 1.8 trillion yen ($ 16 billion) in revenue from 52.6 million travelers in Japan, according to the Japan Travel Bureau Foundation.

But domestic travel still cannot fully compensate for the loss of activity of tens of millions of foreign tourists.

Tourism from abroad to Japan started to develop in 2014, strongly encouraged by then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In 2019, the travel and tourism sector contributed 7.1% to the Japanese economy, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

The target for 2020 was 40 million people. But instead, after the New Year’s holidays, visitors declined as pandemic travel restrictions were imposed. Income from travel and tourism fell to 4.7% of economic activity. Meanwhile, the number of people employed in tourism and travel, including people working in hotels, airlines, travel agencies and restaurants geared towards tourists, fell to 5.4 million from 5, 7 million, the council said.

Before the pandemic, foreign tourists spent more than 4 trillion yen ($ 35 billion) per year. Asian visitors eager to accumulate designer goods led to the invention of the phrase “baku-gai”, which means “explosive purchases”.

At that time, popular destinations like the ancient capital of Kyoto were crowded with tourists. Now the crowds are mostly children on school trips. Kiyomizu-Dera Temple, famous for its spectacular hill overlooking the city, has lost about a third of the 5 million annual visitors it had before the pandemic, even with the recent resumption of domestic travel.

Itsuo Nishida, a temple official, didn’t want to guess when things might get back to normal.

“It’s a place that everyone wants to visit at least once in their life,” he said.

At 6% DOKIDOKI, so named for the little “flutter” to the heart conferred by cute things, pink-haired saleswoman Emiry, spelled with that Japanese “R” and no last name, says she only worked only in the store during the calm days of the pandemic.

Some Harajuku stores are closed, especially in the winding alleys.

“Only two foreign customers came,” the pink-haired Emiry said sadly of a recent day at the store.

And they lived in Japan. They weren’t tourists.

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