By Lilit Marcus, CNN
The summer of 2022 has been dominated by stories about travel disasters, overcrowding at major destinations and airports and life-threatening heat waves in Europe.
However, in Asia, where many countries are reopening in a more gradual fashion — with fewer flight cancellations or lost luggage horror stories — tourists have been slow to return.
This is particularly striking in Japan, which reopened with much fanfare in June 2022, just in time for peak travel season. Between June 10 and July 10, the country welcomed about 1,500 leisure tourists, according to data from the Japan Immigration Services Agency. That’s down 95% from the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.
So what is causing the disparity? And why are travelers so slow to return to what has historically been a popular destination?
There is no safety in numbers
Although Japan is still accessible, the country currently only allows leisure tourists to come in organized groups and not as individuals. For many people in the West, who prefer spontaneity and do not want to follow a strict itinerary, this issue was a problem.
“We don’t need to babysit,” says Melissa Musiker, a New York-based public relations professional who used to travel to Japan regularly.
Musiker and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times”. The pair had planned to visit again in 2022 when they heard the borders were reopening, but were frustrated by the restrictions and gave up.
Instead, they are choosing a new destination and heading to South Korea for their vacation.
“We don’t want to quarantine. That was a big factor,” says Musiker. “We just like to go and shop and eat expensive sushi.”
A preference for city tours over beach vacations tipped the scales in Seoul’s favor, as did its pandemic-born addiction to K-dramas.
Half open is not open
Japan’s not-so-open policy doesn’t just apply to visas. The country still has mask rules in many areas, group tours can be expensive and Japan requires quarantine upon arrival, making it a tougher sell.
Katie Tam is the co-founder of Arry, a members-only subscription platform that helps visitors to Japan make reservations at some of Tokyo’s most sought-after restaurants, such as Obama-endorsed Sukiyabashi Jiro and top of Asia’s Best Restaurants list , Den.
Before the pandemic, many of Arry’s users were Asian travelers — living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore — who visited Japan several times a year or might just hop on board for a spontaneous long weekend. However, since 2020, the company has had to rest.
“We didn’t know it would take this long,” she says of what was supposed to be a short-term hiatus. “It’s definitely been difficult.”
The few members who are starting to get back in touch with Arry to make reservations, Tam says, are people who have been able to get visas for business trips to Japan. Currently, this is the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as solo visitors, and some are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to get seats at restaurants they were previously unable to reserve.
However, there is good news. Despite the challenges, many of Japan’s best restaurants have fared well amid the pandemic.
“Many of the restaurants we work with have a strong local customer base,” says Tam. In turn, this means that these popular places will still be in business whenever foreign tourists can come.
According to the Immigration Services Agency, the two biggest markets for Japanese tourism are now Thailand and South Korea. But “biggest” here is relative—about 400 people from each country have visited Japan since June. Only 150 came from the United States.
The China Effect
In 2019, Japan’s single largest tourism market was neighboring China, with 9.25 million Chinese visiting.
Now, however, China remains essentially isolated from the rest of the world. It still has strict quarantine protocols for both citizens and foreigners, bringing tourism to a standstill.
Japan is not the only country that has taken a significant hit from the lack of Chinese travelers. Popular destinations for Chinese tourists, such as Australia, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea, have lost revenue as a billion-plus potential travelers stay home.
Hiroyuki Ami, Tokyo Skytree’s head of public relations, says it took until June 27 for the first international tour group to arrive at the observation deck. The group in question consisted of guests from Hong Kong.
The financial hub has strict restrictions, including a mandatory hotel quarantine for returning residents, but tourists have still found it easier to travel from there than from mainland China.
“Before Covid,” says Ami, “the biggest number (of foreign visitors) was from China, but I haven’t seen them lately.” He confirmed that most of Skytree’s visitors in the past six weeks have been local Japanese on their summer vacation.
“Just because the reception of tourists has resumed does not mean that we have received many customers from abroad,” he adds.
Waiting in the wings
Odds are good that when and if Japan decides to fully reopen to individual leisure tourists, they’ll want to come. The catchphrase “revenge trip” was coined to describe people who saved their cash during Covid and now want to blow it on a big bucket list trip, and Japan remains a popular bucket list destination.
“There is great interest in returning to Japan,” says Tam, Arry’s co-founder. “I think it will grow.”
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CNN’s Kathleen Benoza in Tokyo contributed reporting.