The remaining Covid restrictions make Japanese travelers rethink plans to get on the plane
By Julian Ryall
Tokyo—Japan’s outbound travel industry is confident there is a large amount of pent-up demand for vacations – in particular for family-friendly beach holidays – but restrictions on re-entering Japan and public alarm about contracting the coronavirus while overseas is making people think again.
And while the industry is calling on the government to relax the rules that restrict the number of people entering Japan to just 20,000 people a day and to scrap the requirement for a negative PCR test before boarding a flight to Japan, the high number of domestic cases being reported makes it difficult for the authorities to let their guard down.
As a consequence, the vast majority of Japanese have stayed closer to home for their summer holidays and are likely to do so until at least into next year.
“We consider Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands to be fantastic destinations for Japanese travelers for many reasons, not least because they are much closer than Hawaii,” said Kasumi Abe, a spokeswoman for the Tokyo-based Japan Association of Travel Agents.
“We are seeing a lot of inquiries about the Marianas, especially as a family destination, but we are also seeing those people put off when they learn about the coronavirus restrictions,” Abe told The Pacific Island Times.
For many, the biggest fear is failing the mandatory PCR test within 72 hours of their return flight. The Japanese government will not allow anyone who has tested positive for the virus to enter the country and airlines will not let them board.
In addition to being worried that if they do catch the virus, they will not be able to home, thus missing work and being without income for a longer, more expensive stay, they are fearful about having to go to a foreign hospital for treatment in a language they are not familiar with.
Public concerns are not being helped by media coverage of the issue in recent weeks, said Takashi Ichikura, president of the travel firm Access Inc. and general manager of the Marianas Visitors Authority’s office in Japan.
“People are positive about travelling overseas, but they are also apprehensive,” Ichikura said. “The issue of people catching the virus when they are abroad and then not being allowed back into the country has been in the news a lot recently.”
In one case, a Japanese couple on their honeymoon in Hawaii ran afoul of the regulations, with the wife, who tested positive, having to stay in Hawaii while her new husband, who was not infected, returned to Japan and work.
The MVA is communicating the message to potential Japanese visitors that the destination is both clean and safe, with support available to anyone who has taken ill during their stay.
Although airlines are still typically only operating with a load factor of around 30 percent, Ichikura said “there is a huge pent-up demand for overseas travel in Japan.”
Those who are taking the plunge are mostly free independent travelers and repeat visitors rather than first-time travelers, while beach destinations are more popular than city breaks simply because they suggest fewer crowds and time spent outside.
The MVA is undeterred, however, with Ichikura emphasizing that the office will continue to promote the Marianas as a year-round beach destination, an advantage it has over Hawaii, and other components of a vacation that will appeal to Japanese tourists.
Statistics indicate that 10 percent of Japanese are certified scuba divers while another 10 percent are golfers, so the MVA intends to promote the islands’ attractions to those sectors, particularly in northern parts of Japan that will begin to get cold in a few months’ time.
And that ties in neatly with the authority’s “Marianascation” strategy, Ichikura said, as potential visitors are encouraged to seize the opportunity for an overseas trip after being cooped up at home for nearly three years.
The MVA has sponsored a group of 10 travel industry influencers to visit the Marianas beginning Aug. 20 and is hopeful that they will be able to highlight the destination’s attractions, while representatives of Japanese travel companies visited in June and July, with more arriving in the coming weeks.
The inaugural United Airlines flight on its resumed three-flights-a-week service from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport takes off on Sept. 1 and Ichikura is optimistic that the initial three flights a week can be expanded to a daily service.
It will, nevertheless, take some time before the islands can repeat their successes of even a few years ago, he admitted.
“We will not be back to 100 percent of the number of arrivals that we had from Japan in 2019 for a while yet,” he said. “We are very much hoping to see a gradual recovery that picks up momentum and that next year we can be at 50 percent of the 2019 figure.”