Andrew William took the courage for a tough few months when Japan enforced a total ban on inbound tourists in April 2020.

As revenue from Kyoto tour company AnDesign plummeted, William moved to a virtual experience to stay in business.

I couldn’t imagine him still struggling after more than two years.

“Design relies heavily on inbound tourism. Before the pandemic, I usually led 20-35 walking tours a month. Since March 2020, I have led 6 walking tours. “William, who specializes in touring Japanese gardens and remote attractions, told Al Jazeera.

“Doing business here in Japan is a big goal in my life and I’m not going to give up so easily. That said, this was very difficult and created a great deal of stress … I did this way. I don’t know how long it can last. “

Andrew William, owner of Kyoto tour company AnDesign, plunged in revenue during a pandemic. [Courtesy of Andrew Willam]

Japan, which is still largely closed to the world, is becoming more and more outlier in areas where border restrictions have been lifted and quarantine-free travel has been revived.

Tokyo has been accepting business travelers, international students and scholars since last month, but tourists are still banned and Japan has a rare relationship with China and Taiwan. Most arrivals also have to undergo a three-day quarantine.

For companies that rely on tourism, border control means that the pandemic recovery has barely begun.

Satoko Nagahara, Ludwig Reine and Melody Singh, co-founders of Japan-based luxury travel design firm Deneb, said the industry is resilient but will take years to recover.

“Recently, I surveyed luxury hotels across the country and asked a variety of pandemic-related questions,” Nagahara, Reine and Singh told Al Jazeera by email. “One of the views that hotel owners generally agree on is that it will take about two years for the industry to thrive again thanks to international visits, unless there are major negative events related to the pandemic. is.”

Anne Kyle, CEO and founder of Arigato Travel, said she had been stressed by Al Jazeera for the past two years, but the move to online tours has allowed her to maintain some cash flow.

“But to be very honest, we are spending the money we borrowed,” Kyle said. “We are on the verge of spending our personal savings to keep the company running.”

Tourism boom

The first tourist ban in Tokyo came in response to the first wave of COVID-19 infection in early 2020 and during the booming Japanese travel industry.

Following the relaxation of visa rules under then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan witnessed the growth of inbound tourism for the eighth consecutive year, with foreign visitors peaking at 32 million arrivals in 2019.

Approximately 40 million visitors are expected in 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics were originally scheduled, and the government has set a goal of 60 million visitors by 2030. It will be 1 yen ($ 3.8 billion) in 2019 alone.

“Tourism is not hyped in terms of its purely positive impact on domestic consumer activity,” Tokyo-based economist Jesper Cole told Al Jazeera. “In addition, the border closure has had a disproportionate impact on the local economy, where the inbound boom had a far more disproportionately positive impact.”

There was hope in the travel industry that borders could reopen after the majority of the population was vaccinated. 80% received at least two doses. The surge in Omicron variants has subsided, and border control has declined in neighboring countries such as South Korea and Malaysia.

A post on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website earlier this month appears to signal the end of the Protocol, stating: April 8, 2022. “

However, when the government sees changes that apply only to returnees, families with extraordinary circumstances, students enrolled in Japan-based learning programs, and work permit holders, those hopes. Was immediately shattered. If they meet the required criteria.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gave a lecture on the podium.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said there are no plans for tourists to return home. [File: Eugene Hoshiko/Pool via Reuters]

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida confirmed that members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had discussed the possibility of “relaxation of border measures,” but “the schedule has not been set” to completely reopen the border.

Further complicating the prospects for Japan’s reopening are the steadily increasing number of COVID-19 cases and the recently discovered Omicron XE hybrid variant in travelers arriving at Narita Airport from the United States. ..

Tokyo has responded to rising infection rates and new variants with more stringent restrictions in the past.Raises the fear that tourist-friendly border policies may still be somewhat distant. In a December poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily newspaper, nearly 90% of respondents said they were in favor of strict border control.

Some experts have drawn similarities between the year of the pandemic and the period of isolation, the period of more than 200 years when Japan was separated from the outside world.

But Kol said Japan only has its own story.

“And it’s not just a story of caution, it’s also one of the things that Japan has lost public confidence because it can’t develop its own vaccine,” Kol said. “This story of over-reliance on global innovation rather than local innovation has constrained more effective and rational global communication strategies.”

Kumi Kato, a professor of tourism at Wakayama University and Musashino University, agreed that communication over Japan’s border measures was confusing, but said that such issues were not unique to Japan. Mr Kato said the pandemic could also be an opportunity for Japan to revise its course on unsustainable tourism.

“Japan should take advantage of the COVID downturn to improve the tourism dimension,” Kato told Al Jazeera. “Japan was not fully prepared to respond to the large influx of tourists … Focusing on sustainability, but the new policy of not rushing to increase inbound, makes borders more free. I hope it will be effective and show results when opened. “

For small business owners like Kyle, who also run a private Facebook group of Japanese foreign tourism experts, the question of when that will actually happen feels as uncertain as ever. ..

“Many people in the group were very optimistic, but now they’re starting to get impatient,” Kyle said. “It’s very difficult to predict [when the borders will reopen] It’s not clear which data government officials are using. “