So what causes the inequality? And why are travelers so slow to return to what has traditionally been a popular destination?
No safety in numbers
Although Japan has reopened, the country currently only allows tourists in organized groups rather than as individuals. For many in the West, who prefer spontaneity and not follow a strict route, that issue was a deal breaker.
“We don’t have to be careful,” says Melissa Musiker, a New York-based public relations professional who regularly traveled to Japan.
Musiker and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times.” The couple planned to visit again in 2022 when they heard the borders were reopening, but were frustrated with the restrictions and gave up.
Instead, they choose a new destination and go on vacation to South Korea.
“We don’t want to quarantine. That was a huge factor,” says Musiker. “We just love to browse and shop and eat expensive sushi.”
A preference for city visits over beach vacations tipped the scales in Seoul’s favour, as did her pandemic-born addiction to K-dramas.
The Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, was usually surrounded by tourists and street vendors.
Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Half open is not open
Japan’s not-fully-open policy doesn’t just apply to visas. The country still has mask rules in many areas, the group tours can be pricey, and Japan requires quarantine upon arrival, making it harder to sell.
Before the pandemic, many of Arry’s users were Asian travelers — living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore — who visited Japan several times a year or could simply transfer for a spontaneous long weekend. However, since 2020, the company has had to take a break.
“We didn’t realize it would take this long,” she says of what should have been a short break. “It’s certainly been tough.”
The few members who contact Arry again about making bookings, Tam says, are people who have been able to secure a business travel visa to Japan. Currently, this is the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as a solo visitor, and some are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to get seats at restaurants they were previously unable to book.
However, there is a bit of good news. Despite the challenges, many of Japan’s best eateries have thrived during the pandemic.
“Many of the restaurants we work with have a strong local customer base,” says Tam. On the plus side, this means that these popular places are still active when foreign tourists can come.
Thailand and South Korea are now the two largest markets for Japanese tourism, according to the Immigration Services Agency. But “biggest” here is relative – since June, about 400 people from every country have visited Japan. Only 150 came from the United States.
Before the pandemic, Kyoto’s narrow streets were packed with visitors.
Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images
The China Effect
In 2019, Japan’s largest tourist market was neighboring China, with 9.25 million Chinese.
Now, however, China remains essentially cut off from the rest of the world. It still has strict quarantine protocols for both citizens and foreigners, bringing tourism to a standstill.
Tokyo Skytree is the tallest structure in Japan.
Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Reuters
Hiroyuki Ami, head of public relations at Tokyo Skytree, says it took until June 27 for the first international tour group to arrive at the observation deck. The group in question was made up of guests from Hong Kong.
The financial hub city has strict restrictions, including mandatory hotel quarantine for returning residents, but it’s still easier for tourists to travel from there than from mainland China.
“Before Covid, Ami says,” the largest number (foreign visitors) came from China, but I haven’t seen them lately.” He confirmed that most of the Skytree visitors in the past six weeks were local Japanese during their summer vacation.
“The fact that tourist acceptance has resumed does not mean that we have gained many clients from abroad,” he adds.
Waiting in the wings
“There’s a huge interest in going back to Japan,” said Tam, Arry’s co-founder. “I think it’s going to go up.”
CNN’s Kathleen Benoza in Tokyo contributed to the report.