Japan will begin accepting foreign tourists in stages starting June 10, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Thursday, as the country continues to ease its COVID-19 border controls after suspending inbound traveler entries for around two years.
The government will initially limit eligible tourism arrivals to guided tours as a means to reduce the potential spread of infections, and will authorize two more airports in addition to five already approved to accept international flights.
"We will continue to assess the situation, and intend to make a step-by-step return to accepting people as in normal times," the prime minister said at an international event in Tokyo.
While the government is poised to double the current cap on daily entries to 20,000 from next Wednesday, it will likely take time to again see the large numbers of foreign visitors seen as a key pillar to Japan's economic growth.
Tours will only be accepted from the "blue" list of 98 countries and regions presenting the lowest risk of infections, which includes the United States, China, Australia and South Korea. Individuals from blue list countries are exempt from testing and isolation measures. The list is subject to review at any time.
Prior to the pandemic, Japan had set a target for 40 million foreign visitors in 2020 when it was originally scheduled to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games later postponed for a year.
Business leaders have called on the government to gradually reopen to inbound tourists, as Japan's diminishing current account surplus has been partly caused by the country's plunging travel balance. It posted a 200 billion yen ($1.6 billion) surplus in 2021, down sharply from the 2.7 trillion yen logged in the pre-pandemic 2019.
The prime minister has made assurances that Japan would ease border controls "in stages" to bring them on par with other Group of Seven nations.
Naha and New Chitose airports, gateways to popular tourist spots in Okinawa and Hokkaido, will resume accepting international flights by the end of June. At present, five airports including Narita, Haneda and Kansai airports can accept planes from abroad.
Since Tuesday, the transport and tourism ministry has been inviting travel company employees from Australia, Singapore, Thailand and the United States for small-scale test tours of Japan.
By running the tours, the ministry aims to improve precautions against COVID-19 and confirm procedures to follow in the event visitors test positive for the coronavirus.
The ministry has compiled guidelines for accommodation facilities and other tourism businesses, and plans to call on inbound visitors to take anti-virus measures such as wearing masks, officials said.
In 2018, Japan welcomed more than 30 million inbound tourists. But the country has closed its borders to foreign tourists since the early stage of the pandemic in 2020.
In February of that year, the number of foreign visitors plunged 58.3 percent from a year earlier, further sliding to a record 99.9 percent drop from April onward.
In response to the emergence of the Omicron variant of the virus, Japan effectively banned the entry of nonresident foreign nationals in November last year.
Despite criticism at home and abroad over the blanket ban on tourists, Japan still managed to top a list of 117 countries and regions in a World Economic Forum 2021 travel and tourism development report released Tuesday.
Topping the list for the first time, Japan ranked highly for its cultural resources and in several infrastructure categories, with the United States ranked second and Spain third.