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

Japan fully reopens to foreign tourists this week after more than two years of COVID-19 border restrictions.   –   Copyright  REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

This week marks the full reopening of Japan to tourists following two years of COVID-19 restrictions. However, the nation’s aspirations for a tourism boom are threatened by closed stores and a labor deficit in the hospitality industry.
To stop the spread of COVID-19, Japan will abolish some of the harshest border controls in the world starting on Tuesday and resume visa-free travel to dozens of nations.
Tourism is expected to stimulate the economy and help offset some of the negative effects of the yen’s decline to a 24-year low, according to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.


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

Compared to a record 31.8 million tourists in 2019, little over 500,000 people have visited Japan so far in 2022. Prior to both being ruined by the coronavirus, the government had set a goal of 40 million for 2020, timed to coincide with the Summer Olympics.
According to Kishida’s remarks from last week, the government wants to increase yearly tourist spending to 5 trillion yen (€34.5 billion). But for a sector that has shrunk due to the epidemic, that objective might be too lofty.
Hotel employment slumped 22 per cent between 2019 and 2021, according to government data.
By 2023, spending by foreign visitors would only total 2.1 trillion yen (€14.9 billion), and it won’t rise above pre-COVID levels until 2025, according to a report by economist Takahide Kiuchi of the Nomura Research Institute.
President Yuji Akasaka of flag carrier Japan Airlines Co. told the Nikkei newspaper last week that since the announcement of the border easing, incoming bookings have tripled. Nevertheless, he continued, the demand for foreign travel won’t fully rebound until about 2025.

Shops are shuttered as tourist numbers remain low in Japan

The majority of the 260 stores and eateries at Narita Airport, the largest international airport in Japan and located approximately 70 kilometers from Tokyo, are closed. The airport is still eerily quiet.
“It’s like half a ghost town,” says 70-year old Maria Satherley from New Zealand, gesturing at the Terminal 1 departure area.
Satherley, whose son resides on the northern island of Hokkaido, says she would like to bring her granddaughter this winter but most likely won’t since the girl is too young to receive the required vaccinations for travelers to Japan.
“We’re just going to wait till next year,” she says.
According to president Sawato Shindo, Amina Collection Co. has closed its three gift shops at Narita and is not likely to reopen them until next spring.
During the pandemic, the company switched its attention to domestic tourism and relocated personnel and supplies from the airport to other locations in its 120-shop chain around Japan.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a sudden return to the pre-pandemic situation,” Shindo says. “Restrictions are still pretty strict compared to other countries.”
The Japanese government launched its Go To Travel campaign in 2020, which was curtailed due to an increase in COVID infections, and is again launching a domestic travel effort this month that provides travel and lodging savings.
Arata Sawa is among those hoping for the resurgence of international visitors, who once made up much to 90% of the visitors to his traditional inn.
“I’m hoping and anticipating that a lot of foreigners will come to Japan, just like before COVID,” says Sawa, the third-generation owner of the Sawanoya ryokan in Tokyo.

Tourism and retail industry staff hold signs reading ‘Welcome back to Japan! We finally met you!’ as they greet a group of Hong Kong tourists arriving at Haneda airport.REUTERS/Issei Kato


Japan’s hospitality industry is struggling with staff shortages

According to market research company Teikoku Databank, about 73% of hotels countrywide reported a shortage of regular employees in August, up from roughly 27% a year earlier.
According to a consultant for tourism businesses who wanted to remain anonymous, many service workers over the past two years discovered better working conditions and pay in other industries, so attracting them back may be challenging.
“The hospitality industry is very infamous for low wages, so if the government values tourism as a key industry, financial support or subsidies are probably needed,” he adds.
According to a trade association employee who begged not to be named, inns in Kawaguchiko, a lake town at the foot of Mt. Fuji, had trouble staffing before the epidemic because of Japan’s tight labor market, and they anticipate a similar bottleneck today.
Akihisa Inaba, general manager of the hot spring resort Yokikan in Shizuoka, central Japan, echoes that attitude and claims that due to a shortage of staff over the summer, employees were forced to forgo time off.
“Naturally, the labour shortage will become more pronounced when inbound travel returns,” says Inaba. “So, I’m not so sure we can be overjoyed.”
Japan’s struggles mirror the staff shortages seen across Europe this summer. From hospitality to aviation, the tourism industry has struggled to meet post-pandemic travel demand due to a shortage of workers, while union members strike over working conditions and pay.

Tourists are still encouraged to wear masks in Japan

Another issue is whether foreign visitors follow other standard infection prevention procedures in Japan, such as wearing face masks. During the majority of the pandemic, stringent border controls were generally supported, and concerns about the emergence of new virus strains still exist.
“From the start of the pandemic until now, we’ve had just a few foreign guests,” says Tokyo innkeeper Sawa. “Pretty much all of them wore masks, but I’m really not sure whether the people who visit from here on will do the same.”
“My plan is to kindly ask them to wear a mask while inside the building,” he adds.
Japan continues to strongly advise against using loud talking indoors and to use masks. On Friday, the Cabinet approved amending hotel rules to allow them to turn away visitors who violate infection control procedures during an outbreak.

By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter

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