Tour operators proceed slowly as Japan reopens to groups: Travel Weekly
Japan’s cautious easing of pandemic entry requirements indicates it is heading towards a wider reopening of international tourism.
But Japanese specialists say they’re not rushing to offer tours to the Land of the Rising Sun just yet.
Indeed, uncertainty looms among operators who say the details of the reopening plans released so far are vague and that questions remain over who is eligible to hold group tours and what is required of operators. .
“We still don’t have clear guidelines as to who will be allowed entry, what the exact entry requirements are, and what travelers will be allowed to see once they arrive,” said Jennifer Campbell, Abercrombie & Kent for Asia.
Cherry blossom season at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan. Photo credit: Alexander + Roberts
The Japanese government will allow pre-packaged international tour groups to enter the country from June 10. The move marks Japan’s biggest push to allow international leisure travel into the country since it closed its borders more than two years ago due to Covid-19.
Japan is also doubling the daily international arrival threshold from 10,000 to 20,000. The latest reopening measures come weeks after Japan began experimenting with granting entry to guided tours in small groups of four people. maximum of four countries: the United States, Australia, Thailand and Singapore. The two-week experiment ended on May 31.
Ahead of the wider reopening in June, Michiaki Yamada, executive director of the Japan National Tourism Organization’s New York office, said that under new guidelines for prepackaged group travel, operators must be registered in under Japanese Business Travel Law and must contract with tour operators in Japan to create and sell their tours.
Within these settings tour operators can create and organize their own itineraries.
“For the current measures, any tour operator can create and sell tours as long as they meet the requirement that the tours are managed and conducted by Japanese tour operators registered under Japanese travel law,” Yamada said. .
Tour operators remember omicron’s false start
Tour operators say the slow flow of updates from Japan over the past two years has sparked everything from cautious optimism to outright disappointment among Japan travel specialists as they have experienced false starts.
“Last year they were about to open and they closed the day omicron was announced,” said Elaine Baran of Esprit Travel, an American specialist in custom tours to Japan. “So it took from last November to just now for them to start looking at opening again. We do a lot of work and then we have to undo it and then we have to redo it. It’s mostly discouraging because we have to keep stopping and starting again.”
Like many tour operators who have not been able to hold a single Japan tour since March 2020, Esprit said its Tokyo-based operations have taken advantage of the downtime to better prepare for the day Japan’s international borders reopen. .
“We made two changes,” Baran said. “The first is to include more buses for our tours so that we can control the environment. We previously used public transport almost exclusively. We also plan to require masks for all of our in-person tours with guest artists and others, just to respect the Japanese people we will be working with.”
Individual leisure tourism and self-guided private tours have yet to return to Japan.
Ongoing restrictions and general uncertainty are among the reasons some tour operators, while optimistic about signs of reopening, are not rushing to relaunch their Japan tours this summer. Instead, many are aiming for the fall, hoping that will provide plenty of time to plan, rebook guests, and see how the initial reopening unfolds, while still leaving room for potential challenges.
Scott Avera, president of Alexander + Roberts, a luxury tour operator specializing in Japan, said the company plans to launch its small-group escorted tour from Japan’s Inland Sea to the Alps in September. However, it will not offer its privately-guided Travel Any Day FIT packages “because they do not meet current requirements for operating as a ‘tour group,'” he said.
Sado Island is part of an Abercrombie & Kent tour of Japan. Photo credit: Japan National Tourism Association
Kensington Tours said it had “no immediate plans to participate in Japan’s staggered reopening” as it prefers to see countries open their borders for up to 30 days before sending customers.
“However, Kensington Tours is currently accepting bookings in Japan beginning in the fall with a focus on 2023, particularly for the beautiful and sought after cherry blossom season,” the company said in a statement.
As for Esprit, Baran hopes the fall and 2023 will be when tourism blooms again in Japan.
“All of us who do this job really love the job, love Japan, love Japanese people, and love sharing culture with travelers,” she said. “I’m happiest when I’m on the phone with a customer talking about Japan. I keep hoping they can visit me soon.”