Japan suffers its worst wave of COVID-19 as strict entry rules deter tourists
Japan, which was praised for largely bringing its coronavirus cases and deaths under control at the start of the pandemic, is experiencing its worst wave of coronavirus yet and has emerged as a virus hotspot in East Asia.
- Japan’s latest wave of COVID-19 was driven by Omicron variant, low immunity and transmission among young people
- The country’s strict border restrictions are impacting Japanese businesses that rely on foreign tourists
- Experts say if the strict measures continue for long, it could impact Japan’s reputation as a business and tourism hotspot.
The country still has restrictions on the number of foreign tourists allowed to enter and has only just announced that it will relax strict rules that limit the movement of those wishing to visit.
With 1,476,374, Japan reported the highest number of weekly cases in the world in the week to August 21, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) latest epidemiological update on the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19.
It also had the second highest number of deaths in the world after the United States, with 1,624, the WHO said in its weekly update.
Kentaro Iwata, a professor of infectious diseases at Kobe University, told the ABC that the seventh wave was caused by the BA.5 Omicron variant, a lack of immunity and low vaccination among young people.
Professor Iwata said Japan had managed to control outbreaks of previous Omicron variants, unlike the US and many European countries, meaning there was less immunity in the community.
“We protected ourselves against infections until recently, which means that we didn’t have the immunity conferred by natural infection. Therefore, we are very susceptible to many infections,” he said. declared.
He said most cases are spreading among young adults who have generally been more complacent and have lower vaccination rates than other age groups.
Regarding Japan’s death rate from COVID-19 during this wave, Professor Iwata said that Japan was struggling to distribute enough antiviral drugs, such as Paxlovid, to vulnerable people, resulting in a higher death rate. raised.
“The Japanese government has not distributed this medicine very well. So we only use this medicine for 60,000 people, while in Korea more than 300,000 have received this medicine so far, with about half of population size relative to Japan.”
Can I travel to Japan?
As the country experiences a new wave of coronavirus cases, the government has taken cautious steps to ease border restrictions that were put in place at the start of the pandemic.
In June, Japan began allowing foreign tourists to return, but capped the number at 20,000 per day.
Visitors can only travel on small organized tours, must strictly follow their guides and can only leave their accommodation for scheduled outings.
But overnight, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the cap would be raised to 50,000 and the requirement to only travel on organized tours would be scrapped from September 7.
Currently, all incoming travelers must have received three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and present a negative PCR test taken 72 hours prior to arrival.
The requirement to present a negative PCR test on arrival will also be waived from 7 September.
Australian passport holders, unlike before, also need a valid visa to enter.
But the slow opening measures are not enough to attract large groups of people, according to a local tourist-dependent business.
“We don’t need a babysitter”
Omakase Tour CEO Takeshi Sakamoto told the ABC that foreigners who requested trips to Japan with his company either postponed their trips or were postponed after learning about the country’s strict rules on tourist travel. .
He said his company was only able to accommodate a few tourists as most had postponed or reconsidered their trip to Japan.
“[It is] completely not durable and useful. Due to these kind of rules, we lost many business opportunities,” Sakamoto said.
“In an email, some US customers said ‘we don’t need a babysitter’…so it’s really annoying for them.”
Mr Sakamoto said he welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement last week which removed the need to take a PCR test on arrival.
He told the ABC ahead of yesterday’s announcement on group tours that while testing was one less thing to worry about for tourists at the border, he hoped other rules requiring guides to accompany customers throughout their journey would soon end.
Alcohol sales fall, government revenue too
Monica Chien, a lecturer in tourism and business at the University of Queensland, told the ABC that the limited number of tourists crossing Japan’s tightly controlled border was not enough to sustain businesses, like Ms. Sakamoto, who relied heavily on international travellers.
Dr Chien said the Japanese government’s “test tourism” was a compromise that aims to balance economic recovery with voter concerns about the reintroduction of foreigners and the risk of further spread of COVID-19.
“While this may benefit some travel agencies, it doesn’t really have a widespread impact on the wider tourism community…because trial tourism is very restricted,” Dr Chien said.
She said the rules eventually led to fewer incoming tourists.
“[They] actually discouraged people from coming to Japan,” she said.
She said if the measures drag on for too long, it could impact the country’s reputation as a business and tourist destination.
COVID-19 restrictions have also led to a drop in alcohol sales in Japan, which is why the National Tax Agency is asking people to help them find ways to encourage young Japanese people to drink more. of alcohol.
Japanese bars and Izakayas have been hit hard by the pandemic – alcohol sales halved between 2019 and 2020, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
The ministry said almost 8% of people in their 20s drank regularly, compared with 30% of people aged 40 to 60.
Income from alcohol sales is dwindling, so the government wants the “Sake Viva!” campaign to “stimulate demand for alcohol among young people”, according to CNN.