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COVID: Japan tests a return to tourism

TOKYO –

The Japanese government announced on Tuesday that it will start allowing small package tours from four countries later this month before gradually opening up to foreign tourism for the first time since strict border restrictions were imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Transport Minister Tetsuo Saito said the tours from Australia, Singapore, Thailand and the United States will be allowed as an experiment.

Participants must be triple vaccinated and tours must have guides and fixed itineraries, the Japan Tourism Agency said. Each tour can have a maximum of four people, and a total of 50 participants are expected to take part in the experiment, the government agency said.

Participants will enter Japan on special visas, not tourist visas, the agency said. The findings will be used to create coronavirus guidelines for tour operators, hotels and other related businesses, it said.

The experiment is scheduled to begin sometime next week and last through the end of May. Further details, including the duration and destination of the tours, have yet to be decided, the agency said.

Japan’s tourism industry, hit hard by strict border controls, is excited for overseas tourism to resume. COVID-19 infections have slowed in Japan since earlier this year, and the government is gradually expanding social and economic activities.

After being criticized for its strict border controls being xenophobic, Japan began easing restrictions earlier this year and currently allows the entry of up to 10,000 people from abroad per day, including Japanese nationals, foreign students and some business travelers. The government is reportedly considering doubling the daily cap to 20,000 in the coming weeks. Foreign tourists are currently not allowed to enter.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, speaking during a visit to London earlier this month, said he plans to ease border controls as early as June in line with policies of other Group of Seven developed countries, but gave no further details.

Foreign tourist arrivals fell more than 90 percent in 2020, compared with a record 31.9 million a year earlier, pushing the pre-pandemic inbound tourism market of more than 4 trillion yen ($31 billion) was almost wiped out.

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