It's a bit presumptuous for tour operators to believe Japan will soon reopen in time for the popular spring season considering that the country doesn't seem to be in any hurry to welcome more foreign visitors despite increasing pressure to do so.
Although numerous destinations around the world have reopened for tourism in the last several months, several noticeable exceptions remain — one of them being Japan.
The country, which closed its doors to foreign visitors in March 2020 and has only welcomed travelers connected to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, technical intern trainees, businesspeople and students since then, announced earlier this month that it’s extending its entry ban for tourists until the end of February.
However, numerous tour operators are still selling trips to Japan, optimistic that the lucrative market, which had seen a boom in visitation prior to the pandemic, will reopen for tourism later this year — maybe even for the busy spring season.
“We still have passengers on the books to travel in March and April of this year,” said Jeff Roy, the executive vice president for Collette, referring to trips to the company’s most popular destination in Asia. “It’s the peak demand period for Japan, often during the cherry blossom (season). People typically want to go then.”
While Roy mentioned a Covid forecast that projects Omicron cases to peak in Japan in early February, time is running out though for the company in terms of those springtime reservations. Close to 1,000 travelers traveled annually to the country with Collette prior to the pandemic.
Roughly 63 million people traveled to and within Japan to view the bloom yearly in the pre-Covid era.
So how far do tour operators need to know in advance if they can take guests to Japan?
“Ideally, we want to know six to eight weeks because if there are going to be requirements like pre-tour testing, arrival testing (and) having a booster,” Roy said, adding that such a timeframe is also necessary as there’s a limit to how long the company can hold space in hotels, restaurants, and airlines.
“We need a lot of time to communicate to the guests that are already booked. Then we have to invoice them for final payment.”
Despite Roy’s optimism that Japan will welcome foreign visitors this year, other tour operator executives echo his uncertainty about whether Japan will reopen in time for spring tours.
“Most destinations don’t have a long range view on reopening. Timelines during this pandemic have been very fluid,” said Yves Marceau, vice president of product for G Adventures, adding that Japan was on the verge of opening up for tourism prior to the emergence of the Omicron variant.
That fluidity has led the company to keep most of its offerings for Japan on the table — nine, in fact — despite removing two trips from its itinerary and putting one on hold.
Other tour operators face similar challenges regarding the trips they often schedule between two and three years prior to departure dates in order to reserve services, create itineraries and feature them in brochures.
“There is a very limited ability to plan for any destination’s reopening with genuine certainty,” said Matt Berna, the North American managing director for Intrepid Travel. “Given customers generally plan travel in advance sometimes months or years ahead, we have chosen to take a cautiously optimistic outlook and keep most trips on sale.”
Regarding how long tour operators wait until making a final decision about whether to proceed with their offerings, Marceau said G Adventures aims to inform its guests between 45 and 60 days prior to departure if a tour is unable to depart. “Most destinations have a clear plan in circulation within this timeframe,” he said.
But when Japan eventually opens up for tourism, will tour operators do anything differently in their preparations for its reopening than what they did for other countries?
“I think Japan will be just like other destinations,” Roy said, although he believes locations in Europe were more forthcoming about their Covid protocols. “(There will be some) combination of vaccine and testing. The only thing that would hinder us is if there’s a quarantine requirement upon arrival. That’s where it’s difficult to actually run products.”
When Japan does open up for tourism, tour operators that have still kept their offerings for the country will be well-positioned to take immediate advantage of the enormous interest in traveling there. Japan welcomed 31.9 million foreign visitors in 2019, which represented the seventh consecutive year it saw a record in overseas visitation.
“Travelers are increasingly looking to book travel sooner to places they can see are open for tourism,” Marceau said. “(Japan) was expecting a huge tourist boom as a result of the Summer Olympics and had been heavily spotlighted before Covid closed the country’s borders.”
“So although it remains closed, there is pent-up demand, and we expect that when it opens we will see a surge in bookings.”
Have a confidential tip for Skift? Get in touch
Photo credit: Kinkakuji in Kyoto is one location foreign visitors to Japan will visits in large numbers once the country reopens Kimon Berlin / Wikimedia Commons