TOKYO, Oct 10 (Reuters) – As Japan opens its doors to visitors this week after more than two years of pandemic isolation, hopes of a tourism boom face headwinds amid shuttered shops and d shortage of hospitality workers.
Starting Tuesday, Japan will restore visa-free travel to dozens of countries, ending some of the world’s strictest border controls to slow the spread of COVID-19. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is counting on tourism to help reinvigorate the economy and capitalize on the yen’s fall to its lowest level in 24 years.
Arata Sawa is among those wanting the return of foreign tourists, who previously accounted for up to 90% of customers at his traditional inn.
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“I hope and expect a lot of foreigners to come to Japan, like before COVID,” said Sawa, the third-generation owner of ryokan Sawanoya in Tokyo.
Just over half a million visitors have come to Japan so far in 2022, up from a record 31.8 million in 2019. The government had a target of 40 million in 2020 timed with the Olympics in been until the two were upset by the coronavirus.
Kishida said last week that the government aims to attract 5 trillion yen ($34.5 billion) in annual tourism spending. But that goal may be too ambitious for a sector that has atrophied during the pandemic. Hotel employment fell by 22% between 2019 and 2021, according to government data.
Spending by foreign visitors will only reach 2.1 trillion yen by 2023 and will not exceed pre-COVID levels until 2025, Nomura Research Institute economist Takahide Kiuchi wrote in a report.
Airline Japan Airlines Co (9201.T) has seen inbound bookings triple since announcing the easing of borders, Chairman Yuji Akasaka said last week, according to the Nikkei newspaper. Even so, international travel demand won’t fully recover until around 2025, he added.
Narita Airport, Japan’s largest international airport about 70 kilometers from Tokyo, remains eerily quiet, with about half of its 260 shops and restaurants closed.
“It’s like half a ghost town,” said Maria Satherley, 70, from New Zealand, pointing to the departure area of Terminal 1.
Satherley, whose son lives on the northern island of Hokkaido, said she would like to return with her granddaughter this winter but is unlikely to as the child is too young to be vaccinated, a prerequisite for tourists entering Japan.
“We’ll just wait until next year,” she said.
Amina Collection Co has closed its three souvenir shops in Narita and is unlikely to reopen them until next spring, chairman Sawato Shindo said.
The company has reassigned staff and supplies from the airport to other locations in its chain of 120 stores across Japan as it refocuses on domestic tourism during the pandemic.
“I don’t think there will be a sudden return to the pre-pandemic situation,” Shindo said. “The restrictions are still quite strict compared to other countries.”
Japan still strongly encourages people to wear masks indoors and refrain from speaking loudly. Cabinet on Friday approved changing hotel regulations so they can turn away guests who fail to meet infection controls during an outbreak.
Many service workers have found better working conditions and pay in other fields over the past two years, so attracting them may be difficult, said a consultant for tourism businesses who asked not not be identified.
“The hospitality industry is very infamous for low wages, so if the government sees tourism as a key industry, financial support or subsidies are probably needed,” he added.
The Japanese government is launching a domestic travel initiative this month that offers discounts on transportation and accommodation, similar to its Go To Travel campaign in 2020 that was halted following a rise in COVID infections.
NARROW LABOR MARKET
Nearly 73% of hotels nationwide said they lacked regular workers in August, up from about 27% a year earlier, according to market research firm Teikoku Databank.
In Kawaguchiko, a lakeside town at the foot of Mount Fuji, hostels struggled to recruit before the pandemic amid Japan’s tight labor market and are now anticipating a similar bottleneck, a staff member said. a trade group who asked not to be identified.
That sentiment was echoed by Akihisa Inaba, general manager of the Yokikan hot springs resort in Shizuoka, central Japan, who said understaffing during the summer meant workers had to give up time off.
“Naturally, the labor shortage will become more pronounced when inbound travel returns,” Inaba said. “So I’m not sure we can be overjoyed.”
Whether foreign visitors wear face masks and adhere to other common infection controls in Japan is another concern. Tight border controls have been widely popular for most of the pandemic, and fears remain about new virus variants emerging.
“Since the start of the pandemic until now, we’ve only had a few foreign guests,” Tokyo innkeeper Sawa said. “Almost everyone wore masks, but I really don’t know if people visiting from here will do the same.”
“My plan is to ask them to please wear a mask inside the building,” he added.
($1 = 145.0100 yen)
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Reporting by Kantaro Komiya, Kentaro Sugiyama, Ritsuko Shimizu and Tom Bateman; Written by Rocky Swift; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa
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