Japan plans to allow more regional airports to accept entrants from abroad, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday, as the country gradually relaxes stringent border controls implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government will also unveil guidelines on COVID-era inbound tourism for the travel industry on June 7, Kishida said, three days before it resumes accepting tourists from overseas, initially targeting those on package tours with guides and fixed itineraries.
The infection situation in Japan has been stabilizing in recent weeks and the daily cap on new arrivals from overseas is set to be raised Wednesday to 20,000 people from the current 10,000.
"The resumption of inbound tourism carries great significance in that the benefits of the weak yen can be felt," Kishida told reporters at his office.
"We will enable regional airports such as Sendai (in northeastern Japan) to resume accepting international flights, in consultation with local governments," he said.
At present, international flights are limited to five airports in Japan -- Haneda, Narita, Kansai, Chubu and Fukuoka -- as part of COVID-19 restrictions.
Naha and New Chitose airports, gateways to popular tourist spots in Okinawa and Hokkaido, respectively, are set to resume accepting international flights by the end of June.
Japan divides countries and regions into three groups based on the risk of infection and other criteria.
Tourists from the lowest-risk "blue" group can enter Japan without taking a COVID-19 test upon arrival or quarantine. But they will be asked to take precautionary steps, such as wearing masks.
The group consists of 98 countries and regions including the United States, China, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and most members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Japan effectively slammed its doors on nonresident foreign nationals in late November to prevent a surge in infections driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Kishida said at the time that the measure, the strictest among the Group of Seven industrialized nations, was necessary.
But it soon became the target of criticism at home and abroad as being too strict.
Since March, Japan has been gradually easing the rules, raising the daily cap on overseas arrivals to 10,000 people.
Japan has given priority to foreign residents, businesspeople, students and returning Japanese citizens among others, while barring the entry of tourists.
The pandemic has dealt a serious blow to the tourism industry in Japan, which had around 32 million foreign visitors in 2019 before the global spread of COVID-19. The number plunged to around 246,000 last year.
Kishida has faced growing pressure to address the blow to households from rising energy and food prices, partly because of the weaker yen that boosts import costs.
For travelers from overseas, however, the weaker yen is seen as a boon because it gives them more purchasing power. The yen has recently hit 20-year lows against the U.S. dollar.