Japan will allow visa-free, independent tourism and abolish its daily arrival cap as of Oct. 11, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Thursday, marking a major policy shift after nearly 2½ years of strict COVID-19 restrictions.
The government will also launch a nationwide travel discount program, which had been shelved due to the spread of COVID-19 infections.
Kishida made the long-awaited announcement during his visit to New York for the U.N. General Assembly.
“I hope many people will utilize them,” Kishida said at a news conference. “I want to support the travel, entertainment and other industries that have been struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.”
The decision was hailed by the nation’s top two airlines.
“We are extremely happy to see the long-awaited easing of restrictions,” Shinichi Inoue, president of All Nippon Airways, the core unit of ANA Holdings, told reporters Friday. “We will increase flights from the end of October to welcome customers from abroad.”
“The economic impact of inbound travelers before the COVID-19 pandemic is said to be roughly ¥5 trillion, and we are pinning great hopes that there will be economic effects of similar size,” Inoue said, adding that the yen’s sharp decline against the dollar “will definitely serve as an incentive” for foreign people to come to Japan.
He said it will lead to stimulating regional economies as well, as there are many people who want to travel to different areas of Japan.
Japan Airlines also welcomed the move, saying in a statement that the company will fully prepare to welcome visitors and contribute to revitalizing the Japanese economy.
Japan has been allowing tourists since June, starting with people on guided tours. On Sept. 7, the government allowed those on nonguided tours who had booked their flights and hotels through registered travel agencies.
But those measures have been unpopular with many foreign tourists who want greater freedom during their trips.
Tourists will need to be vaccinated three times or submit a negative COVID-19 test result ahead of their trip, Kyodo News reported, citing government sources.
A nationwide domestic travel program offering discounts for travel, entry to theme parks, and for sporting events and concerts is also set to start on Oct. 11. People who have been vaccinated three times or submit a negative test result will be eligible for the discounts, according to the report.
The program offers financial assistance of up to ¥11,000 ($77) per person for a one-night stay.
The moves will be welcomed by the nation’s tourism sector, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Travel agencies have been urging the government to waive the visa requirement for tourists, which has been a major hurdle for those wishing to come to Japan. In some cases, prospective tourists had to submit their visa application in person to the nearest embassy or consulate, while others did not get their visas in time for their travel plans.
In 2019, a record 31.88 million foreign travelers visited Japan, but the figure plummeted to about 250,000 in 2021 due to the closed borders.
The daily arrival cap has been raised gradually over the past six months, first to 5,000 on March 1 and eventually to the current 50,000.
Timeline of Japan’s COVID-19 border restrictions
Jan. 31, 2020: Japan bans the entry of foreign nationals arriving from China’s Hubei province, the first entry ban imposed due to the coronavirus. The ban was gradually expanded to 24 countries through the end of March.
April 1: Less than a month after the spread of COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Japan halts entries into the country by foreign nationals, including foreign residents of Japan, from 49 countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and South Korea, bringing the total number up to 73 nations.
May 14: Japan expands its entry ban to cover a total of 100 countries and regions.
Aug. 28: The entry ban is expanded further to cover 159 countries and regions.
Sept. 1: Japan lifts ban on re-entry of foreign residents.
Oct. 1: Japan lifts its ban on entry by foreign nationals planning to relocate to the country.
Dec. 28: Japan again implements a ban on the entry of nonresident foreign nationals.
Jan. 14, 2021: Japan suspends a business-track travel program with some countries and mandates that all people arriving in the country quarantine at home for 14 days.
Nov. 8: Japan opens its borders to foreign students, interns and other business travelers.
Nov. 30: Japan bans the entry of nonresident foreign nationals after the discovery of the highly contagious omicron variant.
March 1, 2022: Japan allows foreign nationals arriving for purposes other than tourism to enter the country.
June 1: Japan raises daily arrival cap to 20,000.
June 10: Japan allows entry of foreign tourists on guided tours.
Sept. 7: Pre-arrival PCR tests are dropped for travelers who have received three shots of an approved COVID-19 vaccine. Japan also raises the daily arrival cap to 50,000 and allows entry of foreign tourists on nonguided tours.
Oct. 11: Japan to allow entry of visa-free independent tourists and abolish the daily arrival cap.