The Japanese government is set to extend until around June next year its domestic travel subsidy campaign aimed at boosting the economy amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, sources familiar with the matter said Thursday.
The "Go To Travel" campaign will continue beyond its original end date in late January as the government sees the need to keep backing the tourism industry and regional economies, despite recent record numbers of infections and patients with serious symptoms, the sources said.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, a strong proponent of the campaign, said the government will extend the program "based on the infection situation and travel demand," when he attended a meeting on tourism.
The extension will be stipulated in the government's additional economic stimulus package, expected to be approved in early December.
The program, which was launched in late July, effectively covers about half of domestic travelers' expenses.
Recently, however, trips to Sapporo in northern Japan and Osaka in the west have been excluded and residents of the two cities are asked to refrain from using the campaign amid a recent resurgence of coronavirus cases across the country.
Facing a coronavirus resurgence, Osaka Prefecture has decided to raise its original virus alert level from "yellow" to "red," meaning "emergency" and a first since the system was implemented in May, as it asked residents to refrain from nonessential outings from Dec. 4 through 15.
"I would like to officially announce a state of emergency for medical facilities," Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura told reporters, signifying how the medical system was on the brink of collapse.
Businesses, which had been asked to shorten operating hours and close by 9 p.m. until Dec. 11, will extend the duration of its request to the 15th. They will receive four extra days of government funding to total 580,000 yen ($5,580).
The government and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike are also asking people aged 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions to refrain from making trips to or from the capital using the scheme.
Tourism minister Kazuyoshi Akaba said Thursday those people who are at a higher risk of serious symptoms can cancel their reservations for subsidized trips without paying cancellation fees if they do so by Dec. 13.
Qualifying for the cancellation fee waivers are trips by visitors arriving in Tokyo and residents departing the capital by Dec. 17, according to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry.
Businesses in the tourism industry will be compensated by the state for 35 percent of travel expenses, capped at 14,000 yen per person per night.
Tokyo, the hardest hit among Japan's 47 prefectures, reported 533 new cases of infections Thursday with the daily figure topping 500 for the second consecutive day. The capital's accumulated number of infections now stands at 42,344.
Japan saw a total of over 2,500 new infections on Wednesday, bringing the nationwide tally to more than 156,000, while severe cases across the country reached a record 497.
The Tokyo metropolitan government raised its virus alert to the highest of four levels last month, requesting that restaurants and other establishments serving alcohol close at 10 p.m.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito have been asking for the scheme to be extended until the end of the Golden Week holidays in early May.
As there are concerns that ending the campaign right after the holidays may cause travel demand to plunge, the government is considering keeping the scheme until around June but gradually reducing discount rates.
Under the 1.35 trillion yen scheme, a 35 percent discount is given for hotel and package tour expenses, while an additional 15 percent discount is offered in the form of coupons for shopping and dining at travel destinations.
The overall discount is capped at 20,000 yen per person per night and 10,000 yen for a day trip.
As of Nov. 15, a total discount of 250.9 billion yen was provided for 52.6 million overnight stays under the campaign, which initially excluded travel to and from Tokyo due to a high number of coronavirus cases there. The capital was added to the program on Oct. 1.
The Japan Tourism Agency said coupons for use at travel destinations worth a total of 57.1 billion yen have been distributed as of Tuesday since becoming available on Oct. 1.