Japan to lift Covid restrictions on foreign tourist arrivals

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New York (AFP) – Japan on Thursday announced it would lift strict Covid restrictions on foreign tourists and reopen the borders after two and a half years.

“Finally Japan will open the border again,” Digital Minister Taro Kono wrote on Twitter.

“Visa waiver is back, no daily limit and free single visits.”

He made the announcement ahead of a speech at the New York Stock Exchange by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is attending the UN General Assembly and is expected to give details on relaxing entry rules.

Japan, along with China, has been an obstacle in continuing tight restrictions on visitors as much of the world moves away from the pandemic.

In contrast, Japan has never imposed a strict lockdown during the pandemic.

Tourists coming to Japan will be pleased to see a weak yen, which has fallen so low against the dollar that the Treasury Department intervened in the foreign exchange market early Thursday for the first time since 1998.

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The return of the visa waiver program, suspended in March 2020, will restore easy access, which saw a record 31.9 million foreign visitors to the country in 2019.

Since June, Japan has allowed tourists to visit in groups accompanied by tour guides, a requirement that has been further relaxed to include self-guided package tours.

The cautious approach to reopening was deliberate, said James Brady, head of analysis for Japan at US-based consultancy Teneo.

Kishida “took office a year ago knowing that the perceived abuse of the pandemic had been a key factor in undermining public confidence in his predecessor’s government,” Brady told AFP.

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“He was extremely careful not to repeat those mistakes.”

Japan has recorded around 42,600 virus deaths overall – a far lower rate than many other countries – and 90 percent of residents aged 65 and over have had three vaccinations.

There is no law requiring people to wear masks, but they are still nearly ubiquitous in public places like trains and shops, and many Japanese are willing to wear masks when sick even before the pandemic.

While the return of mass tourism should give Japan’s economy a “slight boost,” the benefits are likely to be limited by China’s zero-Covid policy, Brady said.

“Much of the economic benefit before the pandemic came from a large number of Chinese visitors who came and spent heavily on tech products and cosmetics,” he explained.

But “currently, Chinese citizens are facing their own travel restrictions at home and will not travel to Japan in large numbers.”

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But there is “pent-up demand” for travel to the country, according to Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights at travel analytics firm ForwardKeys.

“Searches for travel to Japan peaked in late August this year,” and while flight bookings in early September were just 16 percent of 2019 levels, “we expect bookings to pick up” when visa requirements are scrapped. said Ponti.

Demand from Europe “may still be subdued due to the rise in the cost of living in Europe caused by the Russia-Ukraine crisis, as well as rising fuel costs that are driving up air travel costs,” said Liz Ortiguera, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association .

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