Japan increased its daily entry cap on arrivals from 20,000 to 50,000 on Wednesday, as the country's tourism sector has been languishing in the face of strict COVID-19 border controls imposed for more than two years.
Starting on the same day, incoming travelers who have been vaccinated at least three times do not need to take coronavirus tests within 72 hours of departure and show proof they are not infected.
"I had to take seven or eight PCR tests coming back from China last spring," said Hiroyuki Kushida, an auto parts company employee who had just returned to Japan from a business trip to India.
"There were no tests this time. I am glad I could get off the plane straight away," said Kushida, 37, after landing at Narita airport near Tokyo.
Japan has apparently lagged behind other major economies in opening its doors to inbound tourism. But foreign tourists are also now allowed to travel on tours without a guide, in a move that could encourage more people to visit from overseas.
Major Japanese travel firm JTB Corp. welcomed the eased border controls, saying it believes "overseas travel routes will recover as the number of foreign arrivals increases" and that it will prepare to draw inbound travelers.
A Japan Airlines Co. official also said that "flight reservations to and from Japan are on the rise."
As the world's third-biggest economy has shown few signs of a robust recovery, the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been trying to spur growth by inviting more foreign visitors, who would receive benefits from the Japanese yen's rapid depreciation.
The yen fell to the 144 level versus the U.S. dollar in Tokyo on Wednesday, hitting a fresh 24-year low. A weaker yen boosts the buying power of foreign travelers to Japan, with the value of their currencies, such as the dollar and the euro, becoming higher against the Japanese unit.
In November 2021, Japan banned all new entries by foreigners across the globe in response to the emergence of the highly contagious Omicron variant, drawing criticism both at home and abroad for its stringent border control measures.
As vaccination progresses in the country while other nations have resumed international travel, Japan's controls have been recently relaxed on entries for businesspeople, students, technical intern trainees and others entering for non-tourism purposes.
The daily cap on overseas arrivals, including Japanese nationals, had been raised in stages since March to reach 20,000 in June, although all foreign tourists to Japan are still required to obtain visas and asked to wear face masks during their trip.
At a press conference late last month, Kishida pledged to further ease the country's border controls by taking into account the infection situation, the needs of travelers and border steps implemented by other nations.
In 2021, just 245,900 foreign visitors came to Japan, the lowest figure since comparable data became available in 1964, dealing a heavy blow to the country's travel industry that had been buoyed by inbound tourist demand before the pandemic raged in early 2020.
Japan, meanwhile, has been battling its seventh wave of coronavirus infections. August saw a record high for monthly COVID-19 deaths of over 7,000 nationwide, surging up from 1,300 in July, according to a Kyodo News tally of daily counts.
The previous peak of virus-related deaths occurred during the sixth wave in February, with 4,900 people dying.
Despite the wave of new infections, Kishida's government has not imposed any additional anti-virus restrictions in an attempt to prop up the economy, which has been hurt by price hikes stemming from Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the yen's decline.
Japan's economy in the April-June period recovered to its pre-COVID size, with an annualized 2.2 percent growth from a quarter earlier. But analysts said the outlook remains dim as a resurgence of infections and rising costs could drag down consumer spending.