So what causes the inequality? And why are travelers so slow to return to a historically popular destination?
No security in numbers
Although Japan is accessible again, the country currently only allows leisure tourists to come in organized groups and not as individuals. For many in the West who prefer spontaneity and don’t want to follow a strict itinerary, this issue was a deal breaker.
“We don’t need a babysitter,” says Melissa Musikin, a New York-based public relations professional who used to travel to Japan regularly.
The musician and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times.” The couple had planned to visit again in 2022 when they heard the borders were reopening, but were frustrated by the restrictions and gave up.
Instead, they choose a new destination and head to South Korea for their vacation.
“We don’t want quarantine. That was a huge factor,” says musician. “We just like to go around and fool around and shop and eat expensive sushi.”
A preference for city visits over beach vacations tipped the scales for Seoul, as did her pandemic-driven addiction to k-dramas.
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, group tours can be expensive, and Japan requires quarantine on arrival, making sales difficult.
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 just drop by for an impromptu long weekend. Since 2020, however, the company has had to pause.
“We didn’t know it would take so long,” she says of the supposed short break. “It was definitely tough.”
The few members who are beginning to reconnect with Arry to make bookings, Tam says, are people who have been able to obtain visas for business trips to Japan. Currently, this is the only way for non-citizens to get into the country as solo travelers, and some are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to get seats at restaurants they couldn’t book before.
There is good news, however. Despite the challenges, many of Japan’s top restaurants have fared well amid the pandemic.
“Many of the restaurants we work with have a strong local base for customers,” says Tam. On the downside, this means these popular spots are still in business when foreign tourists can come.
According to the Immigration Services Agency, Thailand and South Korea are the two largest markets for Japan tourism. But “biggest” is relative here — about 400 people from each country have visited Japan since June. Only 150 came from the United States.
Before the pandemic, the narrow streets of Kyoto were packed with visitors.
Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images
The China Effect
In 2019, Japan’s largest tourism market was neighboring China, with 9.25 million Chinese visitors.
Now, however, China remains essentially closed to the rest of the world. There are still strict quarantine protocols in place for citizens and foreigners alike, bringing tourism to a halt.
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 consisted of guests from Hong Kong.
The financial hub has tight restrictions, including mandatory hotel quarantine for returning residents, but it was still easier for tourists to travel from than from mainland China.
“Before Covid, says Ami, “the largest number (foreign visitors) came from China, but I haven’t seen them lately.” He confirmed that most visitors to Skytree over the past six weeks have been local Japanese on their summer holidays .
“Just because tourist acceptance has resumed doesn’t mean we’ve gotten a lot of overseas customers,” he adds.
Waiting in the wings
“The interest in returning to Japan is huge,” says Tam, co-founder of Arry. “I think it will increase.”
Kathleen Benoza of CNN in Tokyo contributed coverage.