The Japanese tourism industry is starting to see the first glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel.
Presently, there are no government measures in place asking people to refrain from going out, marking the first time since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic that people can move around freely during the Golden Week holidays.
With the full lifting of the government’s quasi-emergency priority measures, expectations are growing that the pickup in tourism demand will continue beyond the holiday-studded period. Yet, concerns remain over a possible seventh wave of infections.
On April 14, the six JR Group companies announced that around 1.34 million seat reservations had been made for April 28 to May 8 on Shinkansen and conventional railway lines.
Though this figure is about 50 per cent lower than that of the corresponding – pre-pandemic – period in 2018, it nevertheless represents a 1.7-fold increase from the same period last year. The rise in demand is likely because people are free to move around, and the fact that this year, three consecutive public holidays fall in the middle of the week, making it easier for people to take a longer break.
“We hope seat reservation numbers will continue to climb through next week,” West Japan Railway Co president Kazuaki Hasegawa told a press conference on April 15.
Private railways also are moving to take advantage of the increase in demand for services. Kintetsu Railway Co will launch a new sightseeing-focused, super-express service linking Osaka, Nara and Kyoto in about 80 minutes from April 29, the first day of Golden Week. Seibu Railway Co, meanwhile, will increase the number of local trains going to the Chichibu region, which is popular among tourists.
The airline industry, too, is keen to take advantage of the uptick in demand. JAL cut about 6,300 flights in March, but in May it plans to only cut around 730 services. ANA, meanwhile, will operate four security checkpoints at Haneda Airport for the first time in about two years. The firm also plans to boost worker numbers at the travel hub.
JTB Corp expects around 16 million people to make overnight trips lasting one day or more during this year’s Golden Week, a rise of 68.4 per cent from a year earlier.
Business operators in popular tourist spots have high hopes, too. “The waves of people have returned, but many hail from the local area meaning souvenir sales have remain sluggish,” said an owner of a Japanese-style confectionery store on Nakamise-dori in Asakusa, Tokyo. “I hope people will visit from provincial areas during the holiday season.”
Despite the tourism industry having seemingly turned a corner, concerns remain over the future. The number of people newly infected with coronavirus has begun rising again, and it is thought that the country is already on the cusp of a seventh wave of infections.
The government’s Go To Travel Campaign, has remained mothballed since the end of 2020 and it remains uncertain when it will be relaunched. “[Resumption of the campaign] will be contingent on a stable infection situation,” said Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Tetsuo Saito.
Akiko Kohsaka, a chief researcher at Japan Research Institute Ltd, noted: “Some regions centred around big cities have yet to see an uptick in tourist numbers. It may yet be some time before we see a full-fledged recovery in demand for tourist services.”
THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN (JAPAN)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK