‘Ghost town’: Japan reopens borders, but visitors find hotels short-staffed and shops closed


Japan is fully reopening to tourists this week after two years of COVID-19 restrictions. However, the closed shops and the shortage of hospitality workers threaten the hopes of a tourism boom in the country.

Starting Tuesday, Japan will restore visa-free travel to dozens of countries, ending some of the world’s strictest border controls to slow the spread of COVID-19[feminine].

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is counting on tourism to help revive the economy and reap some benefits from the fall of the yen at 24 down.

Japan’s tourism industry has been disrupted by COVID-19

Just over half a million visitors have come to Japan so far in 2022, up from a record 31.8 million in 2019. The government had a target of 40 million in 2020 timed with the summer olympics until the two were upset by the coronavirus.

Kishida said last week that the government aims to attract 5 trillion yen (34.5 billion euros) in annual tourism spending. But that goal may be too ambitious for a sector that has atrophied over the past few years. pandemic.

Hotel use fell 22% between 2019 and 2021, according to government data.

Expenses foreign visitors will only reach 2.1 trillion yen (14.9 billion euros) by 2023 and will not exceed pre-COVID levels until 2025, Nomura Research Institute economist Takahide Kiuchi wrote in a report.

flag bearer Japan Airlines Co has seen inbound bookings triple since announcing the easing of borders, Chairman Yuji Akasaka said last week, according to the Nikkei newspaper. Even so, international travel demand won’t fully recover until around 2025, he added.

Shops are closed as tourist numbers remain low in Japan

Narita Airport, Japan’s largest international airport about 70 kilometers from Tokyo, remains eerily quiet, with about half of its 260 shops and restaurants closed.

“It’s like half a ghost town,” says Maria Satherley, 70, from New Zealand, pointing to the departure area of ​​Terminal 1.

Satherley, whose son lives on the northern island of Hokkaidosays she would like to return with her granddaughter this winter but is unlikely to because the child is too young to be vaccinated, a prerequisite for tourists entering Japan.

“We’ll just wait until next year,” she said.

Amina Collection Co has closed its three memory stores in Narita and are unlikely to reopen until next spring, President Sawato Shindo said.

The company has reassigned staff and supplies from the airport to other locations in its chain of 120 stores across Japan as it refocuses on the domestic market. tourism during the pandemic.

“I don’t think there will be a sudden return to the pre-pandemic situation,” Shindo says. “Restrictions are still quite strict compared to other countries.”

The Japanese government is launching a domestic travel initiative this month that offers transportation and accommodation discounts, similar to its Go To Travel campaign in 2020 which was halted following a rise in COVID infections.

Arata Sawa is among those wanting the return of foreign tourists, who previously accounted for up to 90% of customers at his traditional inn.

“I hope and expect a lot of foreigners to come to Japan, like before COVID,” says Sawa, the third-generation owner of the Sawanoya ryokan in Tokyo.

Japan’s hospitality industry grapples with staff shortages

Nearly 73% of hotels nationwide said they lacked regular workers in August, down from about 27% a year earlier, according to market research firm Teikoku Databank.

Many service workers have found better working conditions and pay in other fields over the past two years, so it may be difficult to attract them again, says a consultant for tourism companies that asked not to be identified.

“The hospitality industry is very infamous for low wages, so if the government sees tourism as a key industry, financial support or subsidies are probably needed,” he adds.

In Kawaguchiko, a lakeside town at the foot of Mount Fuji, hostels struggled to recruit staff before the pandemic amid Japan’s tight job market and are now anticipating a similar bottleneck, a staff member said. from a trade group who asked not to be identified.

This feeling is shared by Akihisa Inaba, general manager of the hot spring Resort Yokikan in Shizuoka, central Japan, which says understaffing during the summer meant workers had to give up time off.

“Naturally, the labor shortage will become more pronounced when inbound travel returns,” Inaba says. “So I’m not sure we can be overjoyed.”

Japan’s difficulties mirror the staff shortages seen across Europe this summer. From hospitality to aviationthe tourism industry has struggled to meet post-pandemic travel demand due to a shortage of workers, while union members strike on working conditions and pay.

Tourists are still encouraged to wear masks in Japan

Whether foreign visitors wear face masks and follow other common rules infection control in Japan is another concern. Tight border controls have been widely popular for most of the pandemic, and fears remain about new virus variants emerging.

“Since the start of the pandemic until now, we have had only a few foreign guests,” says Tokyo innkeeper Sawa. “Almost everyone wore masks, but I really don’t know if people visiting from here will do the same.”

“My plan is to ask them to please wear a mask inside the building,” he adds.

Japan still strongly encourages people to wear masks indoors and refrain from speaking loudly. The Cabinet on Friday approved the hotel change regulations so they can turn away customers who don’t meet infection controls during an outbreak.


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