So what causes the disparity? And why are tourists so slow to return to a historically popular destination?
There is no safety in numbers
Although Japan is accessible again, the country currently only allows leisure tourists to come in organized groups rather than as individuals. For many Westerners, who prefer spontaneity and don’t want to follow a strict itinerary, that issue was a dealbreaker.
“We don’t need to be babysat,” says Melissa Musiker, a New York-based public relations professional who regularly travels to Japan.
Musikar and her husband have been to Tokyo “about six times”. The couple were planning to visit again in 2022 when they heard the borders were reopening, but became frustrated with the restrictions and gave up.
Instead, they are choosing a new place and going to South Korea for their vacation.
“We didn’t want to quarantine. That was a big factor,” says Musikar. “We just like to hang out and shop and eat expensive sushi.”
The preference for city visits over beach vacations tipped the scales in Seoul’s favor, as did her addiction to K-dramas born out of the epidemic.
Yasaka Temple in Kyoto, Japan was usually surrounded by tourists and street vendors.
Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Semi-open is not open
Japan’s no-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 it a tougher sell.
Before the pandemic, many of Ari’s users were Asian tourists — those living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore — who would visit Japan several times a year or hop in for a spontaneous long weekend. From 2020, however, the company had to go on hiatus.
“We didn’t know it would take this long,” she says of what was supposed to be a short-term break. “It’s definitely been tough.”
Tam says that the few members who are starting to get back in touch with Arie about making bookings are people who are able to get business travel visas to Japan. Currently, this is the only way for non-citizens to enter the country as solo visitors, and some are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to get spots in restaurants they could not book before.
However, there is good news. Despite the challenges, many of Japan’s best eateries are doing well amid the pandemic.
“Many of the restaurants we work with have a strong local base of customers,” Tam says. Conversely, it means these popular places will still be in business whenever foreign tourists are able to come.
According to the Immigration Services Agency, the two largest markets for Japan tourism are now Thailand and South Korea. But “biggest” here is relative — about 400 people from each country have visited Japan since June. Only 150 came from the United States.
Before the epidemic, the narrow streets of Kyoto were filled with visitors.
Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg/Getty Images
The China Impact
In 2019, Japan’s single largest tourism market was neighboring China, with 9.25 million Chinese visiting.
Now, however, China remains essentially sealed off from the rest of the world. It still has strict quarantine protocols for citizens and foreigners alike, suspending tourism.
The Tokyo Skytree is the tallest structure in Japan.
Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AFLO/Reuters
Hiroyuki Ami, Tokyo Skytree’s head of public relations, says it took until June 27 for the first international tour group to reach the observation deck. The group in question included guests from Hong Kong.
The financial hub city has strict restrictions, including a mandatory hotel quarantine for residents returning, but it is still easier for tourists to travel there than in mainland China.
Before Covid, Ami says, “the largest number (of foreign visitors) were from China, but I haven’t seen them recently.” He confirmed that most of Skytree’s visitors in the past six weeks were local Japanese on summer holidays.
“Just because the acceptance of tourists has resumed does not mean that we are getting many customers from abroad,” he adds.
Waiting in the wings
“There’s a huge interest in going back to Japan,” says Tam, co-founder of Ari. “I think it will pick up.”
CNN’s Kathleen Benozza in Tokyo contributed reporting.