A foreign cruise ship docked in Shizuoka Prefecture port Wednesday, becoming the first such vessel to arrive in Japan in around three years due to COVID-19 border control measures that were eased only recently.
The anticipated arrival came after the country reversed its government-mandated suspension of cruises, and now seeks to expand the number of ports that accept foreign cruise ships to 100 by 2025, as well as boost the number of tourists to a pre-pandemic peak of more than 2 million.
The cruise ship Amadea's stop at the port of Shimizu in the central Japan city of Shizuoka was the first of 212 vessels scheduled to arrive in the country in 2023, with some ships expected to make multiple port calls.
The Amadea, operated by German firm Phoenix Reisen GmbH, with its approximately 500 passengers and 300 crew, docked around 8 a.m. in clear weather with nearby Mt. Fuji in view. It was welcomed by a taiko drum performance by musicians including some from the local area.
Passengers began disembarking after 9 a.m. following the completion of health checks on board.
A 69-year-old German woman traveling with her husband said she had been moved by the sight of Japan's iconic mountain, and that she was looking forward to visiting a shrine.
The 29,000-ton ship, which departed Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands on Feb. 25, is scheduled to leave Shizuoka for Tokyo on Wednesday night.
In 2019, before the start of the pandemic, cruise ships made 1,932 port calls in Japan, bringing with them about 2.15 million tourists who spent an estimated 80.5 billion yen ($590 million).
In the same year, Japan saw foreign cruise liners docking at a record 67 ports.
The government seeks to increase that number to 100 by including the target in its national plan for boosting tourism, to be endorsed by the Cabinet by the end of March. It is also looking to bring the number of visitors arriving on foreign cruise ships to 2017 levels, a year which saw a record 2.53 million visitors.
"We want to raise the number of visitors by widening their options for ports to dock at," a government official said.
The government has placed focus on rural ports to encourage travelers to visit and spend money in a more diverse range of areas in Japan, since passengers have long tended to get off the ship to explore places near major cities and airports.
To reach that goal, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism plans to give greater support to local governments to help them compete with foreign cruise companies and ports, as well as enhance features at domestic locations for welcoming passengers.
The Japanese government decided last November to reopen ports to cruise ships due to worries the nation may lose its share of the lucrative cruise traveler market after countries in Europe and North America began reopening around June 2021.
Guidelines drawn up by industry associations were a key factor behind the government's decision, with the tourism ministry also involved in designing the measures.
They specify requirements including that travelers' vaccination statuses are confirmed, any infected passengers are quarantined and that ship doctors decide on whether journeys can continue.
Acceptance of foreign cruise ships was suspended in March 2020 following a mass coronavirus outbreak on the Diamond Princess, which caused thousands to be quarantined in Yokohama in February 2020 and left 13 of the over 700 infected crew and passengers dead.
Further recovery will be hampered by Beijing's ongoing ban on tour groups from China, where 80 percent of maritime visitors to Japan originated in 2019. How to test passengers arriving in the country and whether infection responses can ease local anxieties also remain a concern.
Before accepting foreign cruise ships, the government called on local authorities to discuss and reach agreements with ship operators and local health and customs authorities over responses to coronavirus infections.
A recent Kyodo News survey showed the frequency of foreign cruise arrivals could soon approach that seen before the pandemic, with 89 arrivals expected in 23 of Japan's 42 major ports in March this year, compared to 125 port calls in 42 locations in March 2019.