For nearly two years, we’ve been chronicling every update to Japan’s border closure in When Will Japan Reopen for Individual Tourists? We have great news: Japan will finally reopen to individual travel in October 2022!
During a press conference in New York after his appearance at the U.N. (and before a speech at the New York Stock Exchange), Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that Japan will continue to ease its border controls. Starting on October 11, 2022, Japan will resume visa-free travel and accepting individual tourists.
Japan will also lift the cap on daily arrivals, which is currently set at 50,000 per day. Kishida’s announcement did not include any other details about changes to pre-arrival testing or any other requirements that might be instituted for inbound individual tourists.
While this should be viewed as a full reopening, we must stress that not all details are presently known. We know many of you have questions, but we do not yet have answers. This is official, but the accompanying guidelines to clarify the specifics have not yet been released.
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As with the past border relaxation measures, it’s likely that that Japan Tourism Agency (part of the government’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport & Tourism) will release more guidelines and FAQ about visitor expectations in the coming days.
It’s also likely that the current red, yellow, and blue grouping system will remain.
See above for how this impacts arrivals based on country of origin. (Over 80% of countries are in the blue category, including all of North America and most of Europe; most remaining nations are in yellow.)
During the press conference, Kishida also indicated that the government will restart its nationwide “Go To Travel” subsidy program on October 11, 2022. Currently, the “Go To Travel” program targets residents traveling within their own prefectures and discounts travel to nearby destinations. The upcoming change will expand the program to destinations nationwide, offering up to 11,000 yen per person per day in discounts and coupons.
“I hope as many people as possible utilize the program, which would support tourism and entertainment industries,” Kishida said during the press conference. The government had planned to relaunch the “Go To Travel” program this summer but was forced to suspend it due to Japan’s seventh wave of infections.
Since May, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has promised to bring Japan more in line with the Group of Seven advanced economies. His repeated refrain has been that Japan “will continue to consider how the measures should be by taking into account the infection situations at home and abroad, and border control measures taken by other nations.”
After much “careful consideration” and “evaluating the situation,” as well as growing calls from the business lobby and politicians within Japan, the government is finally following through on Kishida’s promise.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that Japan would allow the entry of self-guided tour groups and raise the daily arrival cap to 50,000. Japan also no longer requires incoming travelers to show a pre-departure negative COVID-19 test, provided they have been vaccinated three times.
That move was Japan’s most significant move since reopening to guided tours in June, a step that did not move the needle on visitor numbers in a meaningful way. Many commentators, including us, did not believe the move to allow self-guided tourists who book as part of packages would actually do much to help Japan’s battered tourism sector. Comments from government officials only days after that decision corroborated this perspective.
The announcement of Japan reopening to individual tourists as of October 11, 2022 should help address that, and start to reverse Japan’s tourism slump. A record 31.9 million tourists visited Japan in 2019, with over 2 million visitors a month. Boosting tourism was core to the late former Prime Minister Abe’s economic revitalization plan, and both subsequent prime ministers have indicated their intentions to maintain continuity with those plans.
Under Abe, Japan’s travel industry had been buoyed by inbound demand. The country was on pace for another strong year as of early 2020, with the Tokyo Olympics expected to accelerate further growth. Of course, that did not happen–numbers plummeted and the border closed.
Last year, only 245,900 foreign visitors entered Japan, the lowest figure since comparable data became available in 1964. That drop of over 99.2% is the sharpest decrease on record according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.
Japan’s attempts at reopening via tours haven’t made much of a difference, and were possibly only symbolic measures to assuage the public that the country could reopen safely. Foreign arrivals totaled only 169,800 in August, which is 6.6 times higher than those in August 2021 but that ‘exponential growth’ is unimpressive when zooming out. The arrival number is down 93.3% from the same month in 2019.
Despite the aforementioned numbers, Japan is maintaining its goal of attracting 60 million foreign visitors by 2030.
More notably, the Japan National Tourism Organization has set 2024 as its goal for recovering to 2019 international travel levels. Both of these announcements have been surprising given the current border closures. These prior goals were driven by greater accessibility, barrier-free travel, and marketing campaigns during the Olympics.
This could be at least partially offset by the weaker yen, which has fallen about 25% year-to-date. The Bank of Japan has intervened by selling dollar-denominated assets to buy the yen in an effort to prop-up the Japanese currency’s free-fall, a first in 24 years. Despite this, the yen is still hovering around its lowest level since 1998.
Even this intervention is unlikely to reverse overarching trends. The Bank of Japan has reaffirmed a commitment to ultralow monetary policy, whereas the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks in the West have hiked interest rates repeatedly–and have signaled intent to continue doing so through 2023. These divergent approaches will mean the effects of the yen intervention might be limited, unless the BOJ changes its dovish stance.
As more Japanese consumers are feeling the pinch of inflation, there has been growing criticism that the weak yen is the culprit. Already mired with controversies around the Unification Church and Abe’s state funeral, this is something unwanted for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
One way to partially offset this, and for Japan to take advantage of the weaker yen, is by kickstarting inbound travel to the country.
More government leaders and business groups have been more vocally outspoken about this in recent weeks, including Kishida himself. “It’s important to bolster our earning power by promoting farm exports and inbound tourism…to enjoy the merits of the weaker yen,” Kishida told a government panel.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara (pictured above) said something similar on Fuji TV, noting that “amid the weakening yen, inbound travelers will have greatest economic effect.”
With this full reopening, Japan is expected to see spending by inbound tourists recover to about 2.5 trillion yen ($17.5 billion) in a year, or around half of the pre-pandemic level in 2019, according to economists at SMBC Nikko Securities Inc.
That is partly because a weaker yen makes traveling overseas to Japan cheaper and boosts the appetite for spending. Given the Japanese currency is trading past 140 versus the U.S. dollar, a traveler is estimated to spend around 190,000 yen for a trip, up roughly 20 percent from approximately 160,000 yen in pre-pandemic 2019 when the currency was around 109.
The strength of the dollar means greater purchasing power when traveling to Japan. Intuitively, this might suggest that international visitors will spend less in their own currency due to the discounted yen, history has shown the opposite to be true. When the exchange rate is more favorable to them, visitors splurge on upscale accommodations, luxury goods, dining, and more. It’s believed that a weaker yen can also attract more affluent visitors.
“Past data show when the yen weakens, foreign tourists tend to step up spending during their stay in Japan on cosmetics, souvenirs and other items,” said Naoto Sekiguchi, an economist at SMBC Nikko Securities. The consensus among economists is that a revival in inbound tourism would help improve the current account balance and affect the dollar-yen pair because demand for yen-buying will increase.
Still, the recovery in the number of inbound tourists is expected to be slow for a couple of factors. First, there’s the reality that very few people take last-minute international trips. While Japan is reopening in time for the popular autumn leaves season, it’s doing so with less than two-months’ notice.
While many readers here have expressed a desire to return to Japan ASAP, this is not representative of the broader tourism market. Normal travelers are not anxiously awaiting this news; most have already booked their fall travel plans to other destinations. Many have already booked spring, as well. The lag between booking and traveling is larger for international travel than domestic destinations.
Even those who are interested in Japan may hesitate upon doing research and learning what’s expected of them. Whereas much of the world has moved on from COVID, health theater measures and social pressures remain strong in Japan.
Just yesterday, Fuji News Network revealed that the government will submit a bill that would revise the law governing hotels and inns, allowing them more power to enforce infection measures. In particular, this would allow hotels to refuse entry to guests who do not wear masks and follow other measures to control infection. This news came seemingly as a precursor to the announcement that individual travel to Japan would resume.
Mask-wearing is ubiquitous in Japan, plexiglass dividers are common in restaurants, and other measures that were abandoned over a year ago in many other countries are still in place.
While Japanophiles might do whatever is necessary to return, rules like this will likely give many other more casual visitors pause.
In addition to that, tour groups are unlikely to return in large numbers anytime soon. This is somewhat ironic, as these visitors have already been welcomed back for several months now as part of the monitored program discussed above.
One big reason tour travel will be slow to recover is their demographics and primary country of origin. Visitors from China are unlikely anytime this year and into 2023 due to strict antivirus restrictions by Beijing, which still has a zero-COVID policy. When high-spending Chinese tourists will return to Japan is anyone’s guess, based both on zero-COVID and their own views about the rest of the world at this point.
Like so many of you who have followed this closely, we will be returning to Japan this year, in time for autumn leaves season.
As mentioned previously, we have had a November trip on the books for a while, but began firming up details and booking more–including nonrefundable aspects–in the last two weeks as the rumors of a full reopening grew more credible.
We took the leap because we were confident in the rumors, and also to beat whatever rush there might be in booking prime accommodations during fall colors season. We’re using points for some stays while traveling throughout Japan, and award availability tends to be limited.
As a general matter, for the reasons discussed above, we are not expecting a huge surge of inbound visitors through the end of 2022. More likely, the impact of this announcement will start being felt during sakura season in 2023. (Updated crowd forecasts and other planning resources will be coming soon.)
We will be reporting from Japan extensively in the coming weeks about our experiences, what it’s like as a foreign visitor in 2022 (and early 2023), what has changed, crowd conditions, expenses of visiting Japan in 2022-2023 with the weaker yen, and much more.
We are eager to revisit our favorite places, see friends in Japan for the first time in over two years, and continue creating this site’s wealth of free planning resources. We’re beyond ecstatic about this great (but overdue) news, but also go in knowing that things will be different, in ways both good and bad. Stay tuned as we monitor for further updates and details about the full reopening, and share more of our experiences in Japan!
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If you’re planning a visit to Japan this year, check out our Japan Fall Colors Forecast & Autumn Foliage Viewing Guide to get started on planning your trip to visit Japan’s popular fall foliage cities, including Kyoto, Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Miyajima, Hiroshima, Himeji, and Nara. That also offers tips for avoiding crowds and strategy for visiting the best temples, shrines, and evening illuminations.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan, check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other things to do! We also recommend consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto and Ultimate Guide to Tokyo to plan.
Will you visit Japan from October 11, 2022 now that individual, visa-free travel will be allowed once again? Or are you still waiting for more restrictions to be lifted? When do you think of this announcement? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add?Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!