In what is sure to delight many international travelers, Japan said it’d be reopening to tourists for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. Sort of.
Only tourists from four designated countries—Australia, Singapore, Thailand, and the United States—are allowed in, as they’re considered priority markets in Japan, the country’s tourism agency said on Tuesday. The guest list is also a mere 50 people, broken up into groups of roughly four, all of whom must be triple vaccinated.
And they’ll be under constant surveillance by an assigned minder. “They’ll be monitoring the group’s actions and emphasize basic COVID-19 prevention measures,” Tatsuya Fujioka, the director of the new market development office at the Japan Tourism Agency’s International Tourism Department, told VICE World News on Wednesday. The department didn’t say how the lucky 50 would be chosen.
While much of the world has flung open its borders just in time for summer tourists, Japan has been slower to lift stringent restrictions they implemented at the beginning of the pandemic.
In February 2020, Japan introduced a sweeping ban on all entry from foreign nations, fearing that international travel could lead to a massive spike in domestic COVID-19 cases and overwhelm its medical facilities.
Originally set to take place in November, the controlled tourism experiment was delayed by the Omicron wave and will instead start next week.
The details of where tourists will be visiting haven’t been decided yet, Fujioka told VICE World News. But visitors can expect a fixed schedule like an organized school trip, with the minder as a chaperone. “They’ll likely be taking meals together and then traveling to designated tourist spots,” he said.
The minder will also be responsible for making sure no one in the group has COVID-19, by monitoring symptoms and recording temperatures every morning, Fujioka said. Like other incoming travelers, tourists will also need to download COCOA and MySOS, two apps that track users’ health and movements. Though they haven’t decided what actions to take if someone runs away from the group tour, Fujioka imagined that’d be a “big problem.”
“Before they enter Japan, we’ll be asking them to sign an agreement form which recognizes they understand the rules of this experiment, and that they will follow the guidance of the minder,” he said.
Those participating in the fixed group tours will also be entering Japan not on a tourist visa, but on a special visa. Travelers will be exempt from self-isolating upon arrival, as they’re thrice inoculated and coming from countries that aren’t on Japan’s designated quarantine list.
According to estimates from the tourism agency, just over 100,000 non-tourists arrived in Japan from January to March. That’s a nearly 99 percent decrease compared to that same period in 2019, when over 8 million people entered Japan.
Though tourism has been slow to return to pre-pandemic levels, Japan has since March gradually begun opening up to business travelers and some international students. A daily cap of 10,000 people is in place, though the government is considering doubling the number.