Japan is increasingly an outlier in a region that is lifting border restrictions and reviving quarantine-free travel.
When Japan implemented a blanket ban on inbound tourists in April 2020, Andrew William braced for a tough few months.
As revenues from his Kyoto tour company An Design plummeted, William shifted to virtual experiences to keep his business afloat.
He never could have imagined he would still be struggling more than two years later.
“An Design relies heavily on inbound tourism. Pre-pandemic I was typically leading 20 to 35 walking tours a month. Since March 2020, I have led six walking tours,” William, whose company specialises in tours of Japanese gardens and off-the-beaten-path attractions, told Al Jazeera.
“Making my business here in Japan was a major life goal and I am not going to give up on it so easily. With that being said, this has been extremely difficult and has created an immense amount of stress … I don’t know how much longer I can continue in this way.”
Still largely closed to the world, Japan is increasingly an outlier in a region that for the most part has lifted border restrictions and revived quarantine-free travel.
Although Tokyo has allowed business travellers, foreign students and academics back since last month, tourists are still barred, putting Japan in rare company with China and Taiwan. Most arrivals must also undergo three days of quarantine.
For businesses that depend on tourism, the border controls mean the pandemic recovery has barely had a chance to begin.
Satoko Nagahara, Ludovic Lainé, and Melody Sin, co-founders of Deneb, a luxury travel design company based in Japan, said the industry, while resilient, would take several years to recover.
“We recently surveyed luxury hotels throughout Japan, asking various questions related to the pandemic,” Nagahara, Lainé and Sin told Al Jazeera by email. “One of the commonly agreed perspectives by hoteliers is that, pending there is no major negative event related to the pandemic, it will take about two years before the industry thrives again thanks to the international visitations.”
Anne Kyle, CEO and founder of Arigato Travel, told Al Jazeera the past two years have been stressful, though pivoting to online tours has allowed her to keep some cash flow going.
“But I’ll be very honest, we are on borrowed money,” said Kyle. “We are on the verge of using personal savings to keep the company running.”
Tokyo’s initial ban on tourists came in response to the first wave of COVID-19 infections in early 2020 and at a time when the Japanese travel industry was booming.
Following the loosening of visa rules under then prime minister Shinzo Abe, Japan witnessed inbound tourism growth for eight consecutive years, with overseas visitors peaking at 32 million arrivals in 2019.
Some 40 million visitors were predicted for 2020, the year the Tokyo Olympics were initially scheduled to take place, while the government set a target of 60 million visitors by 2030. International visitors’ economic contribution increased year on year over the period, with 4.81 trillion yen ($3.8bn) spent in 2019 alone.
“In terms of pure positive impact on domestic consumption activity, tourism is not overhyped,” Jesper Koll, a Tokyo-based economist, told Al Jazeera. “In addition, the border closures disproportionally hit the regional economies where the inbound boom had a much more disproportionally positive impact.”
There was hope in travel circles that borders might reopen after most of the population was vaccinated – 80 percent have received at least two shots – a surge of the Omicron variant subsided, and border controls came down in neighbours such as South Korea and Malaysia.
A post on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website earlier this month appeared to herald an end to the protocols, stating: “The following 106 countries will not be subject to denial of permission to enter Japan from 0:00 am (JST) on April 8, 2022.”
But those hopes were soon dashed when the government confirmed the changes only applied to returning residents and family members with extenuating circumstances, students enrolled in Japan-based study programs, and work permit holders, all of whom will be subject to reduced self-isolation periods if they fulfil the necessary criteria.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has confirmed “no schedule has been decided” for fully reopening the borders, though members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party have discussed a potential “relaxation of border measures”.
Further complicating Japan’s reopening prospects is a steadily rising number of COVID-19 cases, as well as the recent discovery of the Omicron XE hybrid variant in a traveller who arrived at Narita Airport from the United States.
Tokyo has responded to rising infection rates and new variants with more stringent restrictions in the past, raising fears that tourist-friendly border policies could still be some way off. In a December poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily newspaper, almost 90 percent of respondents said they were in favour of tough border controls.
Some pundits have drawn parallels between the pandemic years and the Sakoku era, a period of more than 200 years during which Japan cut itself off from the outside world.
Koll, however, said Japan simply has its own narrative.
“And it is not just a narrative of caution, but also one of lost national confidence because of Japan’s inability to develop a vaccine on its own,” Koll said. “This narrative of overdependence on global rather than local innovation has stifled a more effective and more rational global communications strategy.”
Kumi Kato, a Professor of tourism at Wakayama and Musashino universities, agreed the communication surrounding Japan’s border measures has been confusing, but said such problems have not been exclusive to Japan. Kato said the pandemic could also be an opportunity for Japan to course correct on unsustainable tourism.
“Japan should use the COVID downturn to improve aspects of tourism“, Kato told Al Jazeera. “Japan was not quite ready for a big influx of tourism … The new policy of focusing on sustainability, but not hurrying to increase inbounds, I hope will be effective and show results when the border opens up more freely.”
For small business owners like Kyle, who also runs the Japan Foreign Tourism Professionals private Facebook group, the question of when that will actually happen feels almost as uncertain as ever.
“A lot of people in the group were very optimistic, but are now getting impatient,” Kyle said. “It’s very hard to predict [when the borders will reopen] as it’s not clear what data the government officials are using.”