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Pressure builds on Japan to return to unrestricted tourism by end of month

Japan could return to unfettered tourism by the end of next month as pressure builds on the government to end Covid-19 travel restrictions and cash in on a weak yen.

Officials are reportedly considering removing the current daily cap of 50,000 arrivals, which includes returning residents, and a return to visa-free travel. A rule requiring individual travellers to make bookings through travel agencies could also be lifted, according to media reports.

Japan experienced a tourism boom in the years leading up to the start of the pandemic in early 2020, but has since imposed some of the strictest travel restrictions in the world.

Late last year it introduced a near-blanket travel ban amid a global surge in infections driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, prompting criticism from workers, students and others who found themselves effectively locked out of the country as other G7 nations began to open up.

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The prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has come under pressure from businesses to loosen restrictions to help the world’s third-biggest economy recover from the pandemic, the Kyodo news agency said.

The chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, said this week the government was looking to ease Covid-19 restrictions while “maintaining a balance between preventing the spread of infection and promoting social and economic activities”.

Japan last week raised its daily ceiling on inbound travellers from 20,000 to 50,000, and travellers who have been vaccinated at least three times are no longer required to take a Covid-19 test within 72 hours of departure.

Officials are hoping that an end to the restrictions will boost visitor numbers, although residents in some popular destinations are wary of a return to the “tourism pollution” that blighted their neighbourhoods before the pandemic.

Just 245,900 foreign visitors entered Japan last year – the lowest number since records were kept in 1964. In 2019, by contrast, a record 31 million people visited from overseas, while the government set an ambitious target of 60 million by the end of this decade.

Amid warnings from analysts of sluggish consumer spending, officials hope tourists will be attracted by the weak yen, which has recently slumped to historic lows against the dollar.

Full resumption of inbound travel could generate ¥6tn yen ($42bn) in tourist spending, according to a Barclays Securities estimate reported by the Nikkei business newspaper.

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