When Japan implemented a blanket ban on incoming tourists in April 2020, Andrew William prepared for a tough few months.
As revenue from his Kyoto travel agency, An Design, plummeted, William turned to virtual experiences to keep his business afloat.
He could never have imagined that he would still be struggling more than two years later.
“An Design relies heavily on inbound tourism. Before the pandemic, I typically led 20-35 walking tours per month. Since March 2020, I have led six walking tours,” William, whose company specializes in tours of Japanese gardens and off-the-beaten-track attractions, told Al Jazeera.
“Starting my business here in Japan was a major life goal and I’m not going to give it up so easily. That being said, it was extremely difficult and created an immense amount of stress…I don’t know how long I I can continue like this.
Still largely closed to the world, Japan is increasingly an exception in a region that has mostly lifted border restrictions and restarted quarantine-free travel.
Although Tokyo has allowed the return of business travelers, foreign students and scholars since last month, tourists are still banned, putting Japan in rare company with China and Taiwan. Most arrivals must also undergo three days of quarantine.
For businesses that depend on tourism, border controls mean the pandemic recovery has barely had a chance to begin.
Satoko Nagahara, Ludovic Lainé and Melody Sin, co-founders of Deneb, a Japan-based luxury travel design company, said the industry, while resilient, would take several years to recover.
“We recently surveyed luxury hotels across Japan, asking various questions related to the pandemic,” Nagahara, Lainé and Sin told Al Jazeera via email. “One of the commonly accepted perspectives by hoteliers is that, until there is a major negative event related to the pandemic, it will be around two years before the industry will once again thrive on visits. international.”
Anne Kyle, CEO and founder of Arigato Travel, told Al Jazeera the past two years have been stressful, although the shift to online tours has allowed her to conserve cash.
“But I’ll be very honest, we have borrowed money,” Kyle said. “We are about to use our personal savings to run the business.”
Tokyo’s initial ban on tourists came in response to the first wave of COVID-19 infections in early 2020 and at a time when Japan’s travel industry was booming.
Following the relaxation of visa rules under then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has seen growth in inbound tourism for eight consecutive years, with overseas visitors peaking at 32 million arrivals in 2019 .
Some 40 million visitors were forecast for 2020, the year the Tokyo Olympics were originally scheduled to take place, while the government has set a target of 60 million visitors by 2030. The economic contribution of international visitors increased year on year over the period, with 4.81 trillion visitors. yen ($3.8 billion) spent in 2019 alone.
“In terms of pure positive impact on domestic consumer activity, tourism is not overstated,” Jesper Koll, a Tokyo-based economist, told Al Jazeera. “Furthermore, the border closures have disproportionately affected regional economies where the incoming boom has had a much more disproportionate positive impact.”
There was hope in travel circles that the borders could reopen after most of the population had been vaccinated – 80% had received at least two injections – a surge of the Omicron variant subsided and the border controls have been abolished with neighbors such as South Korea and Malaysia.
A post on the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s website earlier this month appeared to announce the end of the protocols, stating: “The following 106 countries will not be subject to the denial of permission to enter Japan from 0:00 a.m. ( JST) on April 8, 2022.”
But those hopes were quickly dashed when the government confirmed that the changes only applied to returning residents and family members with extenuating circumstances, students enrolled in Japan-based study programs and work permit holders, all of whom will be subject to reduced self-isolation periods. if they meet the necessary criteria.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has confirmed that “no timetable has been decided” for the full reopening of borders, although members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party have discussed a possible “easing of border measures”. .
A steadily rising number of COVID-19 cases, along with the recent discovery of the Omicron XE hybrid variant in a traveler arriving at Narita Airport from the United States, further complicate Japan’s reopening prospects.
Tokyo has reacted to rising infection rates and new variants with tighter restrictions in the past, raising fears that tourist-friendly border policies are still a long way off. In a December poll by Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily, nearly 90% of respondents said they favored strict border controls.
Some experts have drawn parallels between the pandemic years and the Sakoku era, a period of over 200 years when Japan cut itself off from the outside world.
Koll, however, said Japan simply had its own narrative.
“And it’s not just a tale of caution, but also a tale of loss of national trust due to Japan’s inability to develop a vaccine on its own,” Koll said. “This narrative of overreliance on global rather than local innovation has stifled a more effective and streamlined global communications strategy.”
Kumi Kato, professor of tourism at Wakayama and Musashino Universities, acknowledged that communication surrounding Japan’s border measures was confusing, but said such issues were not exclusive to Japan. Kato said the pandemic could also be an opportunity for Japan to correct its course on unsustainable tourism.
“Japan should use the COVID slowdown to improve some aspects of tourism,” Kato told Al Jazeera. “Japan was not quite ready for a big influx of tourism… The new policy of focusing on sustainability, but not rushing to increase inflows, I hope it will be effective and yield results when the border opens more freely.”
For small business owners like Kyle, who also runs the private Japan Foreign Tourism Professionals Facebook group, the question of when that will happen is almost as uncertain as ever.
“A lot of people in the group were very optimistic, but they’re getting impatient now,” Kyle said. “It is very difficult to predict [when the borders will reopen] because it is unclear what data government officials are using.