TOKYO -- Japan on Friday eased its borders for foreign tourists and began accepting visa applications, but only for those on guided package tours who are willing to follow mask-wearing and other antivirus measures as the country cautiously tries to balance business and infection worries.
Friday is the first day to start procedures needed for the entry and arrivals are not expected until late June at the earliest, even though airport immigration and quarantine offices stood by for any possible arrivals.
The Japan Tourism Agency says tours are being accepted from 98 countries and regions, including the United States, Britain, China, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore, which are deemed as having low infection risks.
Japan’s partial resumption of international tourism that was halted during the coronavirus pandemic is being carried out under guidelines based on an experiment conducted in late May. It involved about 50 participants, mostly tour agency employees from Australia, Singapore, Thailand and the United States.
In one case, a tour for a four-member group was cancelled when one of the participants tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Japan.
“We expect the resumption of inbound tourism will help stimulate the local economy,” Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Tetsuo Saito told reporters Friday. “We will continue to make effort to recover demand for tourism while balancing anti-infection measures and social and economic activities.”
Under the guidelines, participants are requested to wear face masks most of the time and to purchase insurance to cover medical costs in case they contract COVID-19. The rules don't set a cap for the number of people in one group, but tour guides must be present throughout the tour.
After facing criticism that its strict border controls were xenophobic, Japan began easing restrictions earlier this year. On June 1, it doubled its cap on daily entries to 20,000 people a day, including Japanese citizens, foreign students and some business travelers.
The daily limit will include the package tour participants for the time being, and officials say it will take some time before foreign visitors can come to Japan for free, individual tourism.
Business groups based in Japan representing the Group of Seven countries and European Union, in a joint statement Friday, welcomed Japan's gradual resumption of foreign tourism, but call on the government to “to further ease border control measures to facilitate an environment where people, goods, money and digital technologies can move freely, thus advancing Japan’s economic growth.”
They called on Japan to follow examples of other G-7 countries and resume individual tourism, eliminate testing at airports, lift the daily entry cap and resume international flights at more than a dozen regional airports.
Japan's inbound tourism business has lain dormant during the pandemic and even though the country welcomes tourists and their spending, infection concerns persist among Japanese, especially in popular tourist destinations.
Unlike most Western countries where mask-wearing has largely been abandoned, most people continue to wear them even in situations, such as outdoors in uncrowded settings, where they are no longer requested.
Japan is still reporting more than 10,000 new COVID-19 cases daily, though the number in Tokyo is below 2,000.
The latest mask wearing rules call for people to wear them on public transport systems, in hospitals and other public facilities. People can doff their masks outdoors when others are not around or talking loudly.
It's unclear how popular the package tours options will be with foreign tourists, most of whom have to apply for tourist visas that can take weeks to obtain. But the yen is trading at 20-year lows against the U.S. dollar and weak against other major currencies, which would make traveling in the high-cost country something of a bargain.
Foreign tourist arrivals fell more than 90% in 2020 from a record 31.9 million the year before, almost wiping out the pre-pandemic inbound tourism market of more than 4 trillion yen ($30 billion).