Is Japan open to travelers? It’s where Singaporeans want to travel

Around 49% of Singaporeans say they are considering Japan for their next vacation abroad, according to market research firm YouGov.

Among young citizens, interest is likely to be even greater. About 68% of Singaporeans aged 16 to 24 said they are considering Japan for their “next vacation,” compared to 37% of those over 55, according to a study published in May.

Japan was by far the top choice among respondents, while the second choice, Taiwan, attracted the interest of 39% of respondents. According to the results, around 26% expressed an interest in taking a holiday to Malaysia, but this may have been influenced by the survey question asking specifically about ‘by air’ travel plans.

Still, Wanping Aw, CEO of Tokyo-based travel agency Tokudaw, said her company saw a big uptick in business after Japan reopened its borders in June — with 50% of inquiries and bookings coming from Singapore, she said.

Why Singaporeans like Japan

Japan has always been a popular travel destination for Singaporeans, Aw said, especially for those who want a change of seasons.

Spring and winter are the two “high seasons” for travelers from Singapore, she said. “They like cherry blossoms and snow very much.”

Singaporean trader Alex Ng said he was planning a trip to Japan this fall.

Wanping Aw at Shinjuku Gyoen, a popular park in Tokyo. Aw, a Singaporean, has lived in Japan for 13 years.

Source: Wanping Aw

A self-proclaimed “Japanophile,” Ng said the country hits the “sweet spot” between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

He said Japan’s safety, cleanliness and professionalism are comparable to Singapore’s, as is compliance with social rules for the greater good.

“Trains don’t go on strike while you’re rushing back from a day trip,” he said. “We feel comfortable in this structure. It’s familiar how we live here, which is probably why most Singaporeans like Switzerland.”

The food is also well-known — rice-based with ingredients like fish, pork, and tofu — but it “branches out in myriad intriguing directions from there.”

Alex Ng said that most Singaporeans enjoy the intricacies of Japanese culture. “It’s cathartic and inspiring to experience.”

Source: Alex Ng

He said he also appreciates the religious differences between the two countries.

“We are fortunate to have a range of religions here in Singapore,” he said. But “the Shintoism that influences much of Japanese life and culture – particularly its architecture, aesthetics, cultivation and care of natural spaces – is quite different from what we grew up with.”

And the cherry blossoms? “Hundreds of years have been spent cultivating tens of thousands of cherry blossom trees… for a few weeks of lively celebrations each year.”

“I’m not tired of the spectacle,” he said.

Confusion is the order of the day

Singapore is one of more than 100 countries and territories marked “blue” in Japan’s color-coded entry classification system.

Travelers from these locations do not need to undergo a Covid-19 test or quarantine on arrival, nor do they need to be vaccinated to enter the country. However, pre-flight visas and Covid-19 PCR tests are required, according to the website of the Japanese embassy in Singapore.

But the requirements beyond that have confused many travelers, Aw said.

This applies in particular to the regulation according to which tourists “are only allowed to enter the country if, among other things, a travel agency that organizes the trip serves as the receiving organization of the people entering the country,” as the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained.

Sites like this use a “language that speaks in loops,” Aw said.

Everyone is confused and stressed about the visa application process.

“And this misunderstanding is escalated by the fact that the Japanese embassies use the word ‘package tour,'” she said. This conjures up images of “30 to 40 strangers on a large bus traveling along a set route with a set itinerary.”

But that’s not right, she said.

One person can book a “package tour,” she said, adding that since Japan’s borders opened in June, she has arranged three individual tour bookings — including one from Singapore.

The term “pre-arranged itinerary” also confuses potential travelers.

“Everyone seems to have the impression that they have to nail their itinerary to the hour or the minute… that it’s difficult to come up with,” she said. “But it’s not as difficult as it seems.”

Another problem – “everyone is confused and stressed about the visa application process,” she said.

To apply for a tourist visa, travelers must plan an itinerary and book their flights and accommodations before she can process their “ERFS certificates,” she said, referring to an approval document visitors need before they can apply for their visa.

Only Japanese companies can apply for the certificate, but travelers can work through travel agencies in their home countries, which in turn work with their local partners in Japan, she said.

Once an ERFS certificate is in place, travelers can apply for their visas, Aw said.

Finally the companion

In addition to working with an agency, international travelers must “always” travel with a companion, Aw said.

Guests have to pay for the escort, who is a travel agency employee, Aw said. But on the other hand, escorts can help with things like restaurant reservations and train schedules to make trips go more smoothly, she said.

Supervised travel is not an exclusion criterion for Ng, nor is Japan’s rest of travel rules, he said. However, he said he would likely travel to Japan more often if the rules were less cumbersome.

For now, Ng said he was optimistic.

“There is a good chance that Japan will ease restrictions further soon as the election is now over,” he said.

Ng said he had secured his flights and hotels – but not his visa – on the assumption the rules could be different in the autumn.

Aw said many other Singaporeans are doing the same. They are making plans, but are delaying the process of applying for their visas “as long as they can,” she said.

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