Three jabs and you're in, but no shot in the arm for tourism

Japan's border restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic have been some of the world's strictest. Authorities are loosening up a little, but tourists who like to roam free aren't in any rush to pack their bags.

Starting September 7, inbound travelers with at least three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine no longer need proof of a negative PCR test.

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio on Wednesday announced further relaxations, including raising the daily entry cap on arrivals to 50,000 from the current 20,000.

Kishida says more changes are in the works. "We plan to further relax restrictions to make entry procedures as smooth as they are in other Group of Seven countries."

Tour companies say Japan's current entry restrictions discourage Western tourists in particular.

Packaged tours only

Japan has effectively been closed to overseas tourists for more than two years. Authorities partially reopened the door in June to would-be visitors who are willing to first apply for a visa. Once inside, they have to travel in guided group tours.

Starting September 7, overseas tourists will be allowed to come on their own -- but only as long as a travel agency plans out their trip.

That's still a sticking point for people like British hospital worker Darren Ruddy, who traveled to Japan for two weeks in 2016. The 36-year-old wants to visit again -- with the same degree of freedom.

"The changes that are coming in now is a step in the right direction, but it still feels quite slow compared to the rest of the world," he says. "I'm holding off until I can come as an individual and do what I want to do."

Darren Ruddy traveled around the Tokyo area in 2016 as an individual. He wants to visit again, but is holding off for now.

Ruddy is far from alone. More than 70 percent of overseas tourists who came to Japan in 2019 arranged their own travel and accommodation.

Experts say government should do more

Before the pandemic, Japan welcomed about two million overseas tourists per month. To say the eased restrictions are helping to regain those heady figures would be an exaggeration: just 8,000 people over the past two months.

Professor Ochi Yoshinori says Japan's entry restrictions are damaging the country's economy and reputation.

Ochi Yoshinori, a professor at the Department of International Tourism Management at Toyo University, says it's time to fling the doors open.

"The border should be fully reopened. Japan is taking a very cautious approach. People are choosing to visit elsewhere."

Ochi says traveling in guided group tours is good for first-timers, but less so for repeat visitors.

Japan -- the world's coronavirus hot spot

Still, other experts are pointing to the fact that Japan has in recent weeks had the world's highest number of coronavirus cases.

"It's better to have strong quarantine measures in place when thinking only about infectious diseases," says Osaka University Professor Kutsuna Satoshi.

At the same time, he acknowledges that the government's approach is designed to keep the economy and society functioning. "Given the current situation, an infected traveler from outside of Japan wouldn't have such a big impact," he says.

The historic Takayama area used to welcome about 600,000 international tourists every year.

The coronavirus constantly mutates, and Kutsuna suggests it would be foolish to think the future will be any different.

He says authorities need to create "a system in which restrictions can be put back in place upon the emergence of any variants that are more transmissible or cause more serious symptoms."

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