So what causes the disparity? And why are travelers so slow to return to what has always been a popular destination?
No safety in the numbers
Although Japan is accessible again, the country is currently only allowing leisure tourists to come in organized groups rather than as individuals. For many in the West, who prefer spontaneity and do not want to follow a strict itinerary, this problem has been a deciding factor.
“We don’t need to be babysat,” says Melissa Musiker, a New York-based public relations professional who regularly traveled to Japan.
Musiker and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times”. The couple had planned to visit again in 2022 when they heard the borders would reopen, but were frustrated by the restrictions and gave up.
Instead, they opt for a new destination and travel to South Korea for their vacation.
“We don’t want to quarantine. That was a huge factor,” Musiker says. “We just like to go shopping and eat expensive sushi.”
A preference for city tours over beach vacations has tipped the balance in Seoul’s favor, as has its pandemic-born reliance on K-dramas.
Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, Japan was usually surrounded by tourists and street vendors.
Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Semi-open is not open
Japan’s policy of total non-openness does not only apply to visas. The country still has mask rules in many areas, group tours can be expensive, and Japan requires quarantine upon arrival, making it a tougher sell.
Before the pandemic, many Arry users were Asian travelers — living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore — who visited Japan several times a year or might just have a spontaneous long weekend. Since 2020, however, the company has had to take a break.
“We had no idea it would take this long,” she says of what was meant to be a short-term break. “It has certainly been difficult.”
According to Tam, the few members who are starting to reconnect with Arry to make reservations are people who were able to obtain business travel visas to Japan. Currently, it’s the only way for non-nationals to enter the country as solo visitors, and some are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to secure seats at restaurants they previously couldn’t book. .
However, there is good news. Despite the challenges, many of Japan’s top restaurants are doing well amid the pandemic.
“A lot of the restaurants we work with have a strong local following,” says Tam. On the other hand, this means that these popular places will always be in operation whenever foreign tourists can come.
According to the Immigration Services Agency, the two largest markets for Japanese tourism are now Thailand and South Korea. But the “biggest” here is relative – around 400 people from each country have visited Japan since June. Only 150 came from the United States.
Before the pandemic, the narrow streets of Kyoto were packed with visitors.
Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images
The China effect
In 2019, Japan’s largest tourist market was neighboring China, with 9.25 million Chinese visitors.
Today, however, China remains essentially isolated from the rest of the world. It still has strict quarantine protocols in place for citizens and foreigners, which has crippled tourism.
Tokyo Skytree is the tallest structure in Japan.
Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Reuters
Hiroyuki Ami, public relations manager at Tokyo Skytree, explains that it took until June 27 for the first group of international tourists to arrive at the observation deck. The group in question consisted of guests from Hong Kong.
The financial hub city has strict restrictions, including mandatory hotel quarantine for returning residents, but it has always been easier for tourists to travel from there than from mainland China.
“Before Covid, says Ami, “the largest number (of foreign visitors) were from China, but I haven’t seen them recently.” He confirmed that most visitors to Skytree in the past six weeks were Japanese locals during their summer holidays.
“Just because tourist acceptance has picked up doesn’t mean we have many foreign customers,” he adds.
Waiting in the wings
“There’s huge interest in going back to Japan,” says Tam, Arry’s co-founder. “I think it will resume.”
Kathleen Benoza of CNN in Tokyo contributed reporting.