As COVID fears low tide, Japan is preparing for tourists from abroad

TOKYO (AP) — Tokyo rickshaw men are adding English-speaking staff, a sure sign that Japan is bracing itself for a return of tourists from abroad.

Japan’s border controls to contain the spread of coronavirus infections began to ease gradually earlier this month.

That’s great news for Yusuke Otomo, owner of Daikichi, a kimono rental business in Asakusa, an old Tokyo neighborhood known for its temples, fun restaurants and rickshaw rides. He can hardly contain his excitement.

“It was three tough years. But we’ve lasted until today. And after such an experience, it’s just exciting to think that people from abroad can finally come back,” Otomo told The Associated Press.

“I think maybe, just like before COVID, my shop, the city of Asakusa and everyone’s hearts can bloom again. I can not wait.”

Before the pandemic, Asakusa was so crowded with foreigners that they were sometimes outnumbered by the Japanese. After the coronavirus hit, the streets were deserted.

“Not a soul in sight,” he said sadly.

Some kimono rental shops folded. Restaurants were closed.

The crowds are finally back with a gradual easing of the city’s COVID-19 restrictions, forcing restaurants to close early and people to take social distancing and limit event attendees. But most of the visitors are Japanese.

Shuso Imada, general manager at JSS Information Center, a sake and shochu showroom in downtown Tokyo, said he feels quite lonely and itches to tell foreign visitors how to pair traditional Japanese rice wine with all sorts of non-alcoholic drinks. Japanese food , even cheese and beef.

“In a way, we didn’t have much to do and just had to wait. The gates have now reopened,” he said.

But like others waiting for tourists, he acknowledged that the restricted tour group access now in effect may not allow time for a leisurely visit to his center.

Visitors must adhere to guidelines that require travelers to have a dedicated coordinator, stay on specific routes, and abide by rules such as wearing masks and using sanitizers on a regular basis.

Before COVID, tourism thrived as a mainstay of Japan’s economy, the third largest in the world. Foreign visitors counted a record 32 million in 2019 and the target for 2020 was 40 million. After COVID hit, the government gradually imposed very restrictive limits on foreign arrivals, excluding many foreign residents for a time.

From June 10, it will allow foreign tourists to visit, but in limited numbers and only on group tours, not as individual travelers.

A visa is required for almost everyone, even for countries that normally enter visa-free. And they’re only available to travelers from 98 so-called “blue” countries, including the US, who are deemed to pose a minimal health risk and can enter without quarantine if they prove they tested negative for COVID within 72 hours of their departure.

People entering Japan from countries considered to be at greater risk must quarantine at home or in government-designated facilities for three days. There is a daily limit for arrivals of 20,000 people, including all travelers. And the number of airports open to foreign tourists is also gradually expanding.

Concerns about COVID-19 remain. If infections resurface in a new wave, pandemic precautions could be scaled back.

Japan, an overpopulated island nation, is wary of external risks and infectious diseases. After seeing very few tourists for about two years, Japanese are having to adapt, Otomo and others said.

So the authorities are taking it easy.

“I would like to have tourists from abroad as long as everyone, including myself, adheres to the rules, such as wearing masks and adhering to hygiene standards,” said Minaho Iwase, who recently visited Tokyo from Aichi , central Japan.

Many tourists may be put off by the restrictions on independent travel. But some don’t seem to mind.

“When my friends asked me to join this trip to Japan, I immediately said, ‘Yes.’ I have been to Japan before. I love their food, their tradition and their highly organized culture. Japan is amazing,” said Sorrasek Thuantawee, an office worker who last week joined a group of eight Thais excitedly preparing to board a flight from Bangkok.

Japan is a favorite destination, despite not being “100% open,” said Nuttavut Mitsumoto, the guide for the group, Thai travel agency Compax World’s first to Japan since easing entry rules.

The Japanese yen has weakened against the US dollar and other currencies this year, making visits a bargain.

A survey last month by Money.co.uk, a free online service that compares financial products, found Osaka in fourth place and Tokyo in eighth for the most affordable “luxury travel”, including Michelin-starred meals and five star hotels.

Back in Asakusa, rickshaw man Shunpei Katayama has yet to drive around his first post-COVID foreign tourist, but English-speaking drivers are back at work. And for now, Japanese visitors from outside Tokyo are keeping him busy.

“Japanese who can’t go to Guam and other places abroad come to Shibuya. And Asakusa,’ he said.

Recently, Otomo snapped photos of a Japanese mother and daughter dressed in colorful kimonos to attend a friend’s wedding in Tokyo.

The foreign clientele who frequented his shop were so eager to dress up as samurai, ninja and geisha, complete with swords and hair ornaments. Some quickly became friends, regardless of nationality, Otomo recalled a little sentimentally.

“If they’re happy, I’m happy. They get my adrenaline going,” he said.

AP journalists Tassanee Vejpongsa in Bangkok and Haruka Nuga in Tokyo collaborated on this report.

Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama

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