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NEW YORK (Reuters) – Japan said on Thursday it would lift tough COVID-19 restrictions on foreign tourists, reopening borders after two and a half years.
Speaking at the New York Stock Exchange, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the pandemic had disrupted the free movement of people, goods and capital that had helped the nation prosper.
“But from October 11, Japan will ease border control measures to be on par with the United States, and resume visa-free travel and individual travel,” said Kishida, who is in the city for the United Nations General Assembly.
Japan, along with China, has resisted continued tough restrictions on visitors as much of the world has emerged from the pandemic.
But unlike China, Japan never imposed strict confinement during the crisis.
Tourists coming to Japan will benefit from a weak yen, which has fallen so low against the dollar that the finance ministry intervened in the currency market on Thursday for the first time since 1998.
The return of the suspended visa waiver program in March 2020 will restore ease of access which saw a record 31.9 million foreign visitors to the country in 2019.
Since June, Japan has allowed tourists to visit in groups accompanied by guides, a requirement that has been further relaxed to include self-guided package tours.
The cautious approach to reopening was deliberate, said James Brady, head of Japan analysis at US consultancy Teneo.
Kishida “took office a year ago knowing that the perceived mismanagement of the pandemic had been a key factor in undermining public confidence” in his predecessor’s government, Brady said.
“He was extremely careful not to repeat those mistakes.”
Japan has recorded around 42,600 total coronavirus deaths – a significantly lower rate than many other countries – and 90% of residents aged 65 and over have received three vaccines.
No law requires people to wear masks, but they are still nearly ubiquitous in public places like trains and shops, with many Japanese people willing to wear masks when sick even before the pandemic.
On the streets of Tokyo, the public hailed the announcement.
“I think it’s a good thing to gradually bring foreign tourists back here,” said Michio Kano, 76, who runs a bar.
He called for this decision to be followed by a relaxation of the anti-COVID-19 rules.
“You can’t relax the rules on one side for foreigners and still say to the Japanese, ‘Don’t do this or that,'” he said.
Katsunori Mukai, 28, said Japan should welcome tourists as long as there is no increase in cases.
“It’s true that here we still have the culture of wearing a mask and other things but I think that if there is no serious danger of catching a serious illness in general, people can come as many times as they want,” he said.
While the return of mass tourism is expected to give a “mild boost” to Japan’s economy, the benefits will likely be limited by China’s zero COVID-19 policy, said Brady, the analyst.
“A lot of the pre-pandemic economic benefits came from the high number of Chinese visitors coming and spending a lot of money on tech (and) cosmetics,” he explained.
But “currently, Chinese citizens are facing their own travel restrictions at home and will not be traveling to Japan in large numbers.”
However, there is pent-up travel demand in the country, according to Olivier Ponti, vice president of information for travel analytics firm ForwardKeys.
“Japan travel searches peaked this year in late August,” and while flight bookings were only 16% of 2019 levels in early September, “we expect bookings to increase” when the Visa rules will be scrapped, Ponti says.
Demand from Europe could still be subdued “due to the rising cost of living in Europe caused by the Russia-Ukraine crisis and rising fuel costs pushing up air travel costs” , said Liz Ortiguera, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association.