For now, Japan is only allowing tourists from 98 countries and regions to take part in the guided tours. Ahead of the June 10 reopening, the government released guidelines for the travel agencies that will be organizing them.
New guidelines for foreign travelers
The companies will educate their customers on local health guidelines, help them sign up for private health insurance and keep track of close contacts. In the event a traveler tests positive for COVID-19 while taking part in a tour, they will be guided to a designated healthcare facility for treatment. Close contacts will be asked to isolate, and any tour participant who is not considered a close contact will be allowed to continue the tour.
Japan's Tourism Agency released these rules, based on findings from a series of test tours carried out in May and early June.
Test tours in Nagano Prefecture
On May 27, four travel agents from Australia arrive at Tokyo's Haneda airport. They're taking part in one of multiple government-sponsored packaged trips, organized through an approved travel agency.
"I think I speak for all of us when I say we're very excited about Japan reopening its borders for travelers coming to the country," says Clement Kueh. They don't spend much time in the airport, nor do they get a chance to see Tokyo. Not long after landing, the four travelers head directly to Matsumoto City, Nagano prefecture.
They start their next morning off with a temperature check in the hotel lobby. It's one of several anti-COVID infection measures that they've pledged to abide by throughout their trip, like using hand sanitizer frequently and wearing masks when out in public.
On top of helping Japan to finalize guidelines for the June 10 reopening, the travel agents say they will use their experience to inform their clients back home, many of whom have not experienced mandatory masking rules for quite some time.
"Sometimes I forget about the mask, but we see everybody else is wearing them too, apart from eating, and we're not used to doing that in Australia now. Luckily our guide reminds us, mask on!" says Sandy Brasier, one of the participants. She and her fellow travelers are not allowed to stray very far from their tour guide, Tsukushi Kimiko, who offers frequent reminders about the rules.
The main event of the group's first day of travel is Matsumoto Castle. Once an imposing fortress used by samurai to exert authority over the local populace, it's now a popular tourist attraction for foreign travelers and Japanese residents alike. People can climb the castle's steep wooden steps and see exhibits featuring some of the feudal-era arms and armor used by its former defenders.
Locals await the arrival of foreign tourists
The packaged tour is curated around pre-planned visits to museums and historical spots like this one. Members of the group are not allowed to go off on their own, but the itinerary does provide opportunities to explore and meet the locals. After visiting the castle, the travelers are allowed to take a stroll down Nawate Street, a popular shopping district that's a five-minute walk away.
Christopher Koch is a cafe owner who set up shop in Matsumoto City 6 years ago. He says he fell in love with the area shortly after moving to Japan from the United States. He says his business, which offers Western food like bagels and barbeque pulled pork, proved popular both with expats living in the city and foreign travelers passing through. In 2019, he moved to a larger location on Nawate Street.
Then, COVID-19 hit. "All my plans went out the window. Basically I wanted to have music events and parties and invite tourists, but with the pandemic, there are no more tourists," says Koch. He says a boarding house that he and his wife set up on their second floor went mostly unused, and their business dropped by almost 80%.
Koch says he's excited for the potential to meet more customers as Japan reopens for tourists. He says he understands that since it starts with small, guided tours, it may be a while before he sees a bump in business. However, he says the gradual reopening is a good first step.
Is the tourism boom coming back?
Meanwhile, members of the travel industry say a financial boom could still be months away. A representative with a subsidiary of Japan's largest travel agency says that under the current plan, most of their foreign customers are being left out.
According to Kurosawa Billy Shinya, President and CEO of JTB Global Marketing & Travel, just 17% of foreign tourists who came to Japan in 2019 took part in packaged group tours. The rest chose to travel solo.
"The overwhelming demand is individual customers who can move freely. If possible, I hope we'll be able to move toward the next step from around September, and be allowed to accept solo travelers," says Kurosawa.
Back on Nawate Street, Koch has a chance to meet some of the Australian travel agents as they wrap up their first big day of sightseeing. They go elsewhere for dinner, but one of the travelers says she'll share a post about his cafe on Facebook.
"It was good seeing the tour," says Koch, as the travelers continue on their way. "It gives me some hope for the summer."