Japan is reopening for tour groups: What you need to know now
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Japan has been one of the world’s last COVID-19 travel ban holdouts — it has been closed to all tourists since 2020. However, after launching a series of very restrictive “test tours” last month, the country is finally cracking open. On June 10, it will begin its latest reopening phase, which will allow foreign visitors to enter Japan on group tours (and only group tours) and travel throughout the country.
Here’s what you need to know about the latest rules to visit Japan, how tour companies are reacting to the announcement and what you might expect when you get there.
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The latest rules for tourism travel to Japan
The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs updated travel entry requirements on its website on June 7, and TPG confirmed further information via the Japan Embassy in the U.S. as well as the Japan National Tourism Organization. Here are the basics:
- Americans must obtain a visa to travel to Japan.
- Tourists must be part of a group tour led by an officially certified agency.
- For tourism, “visa applications should be submitted through accredited travel agencies.”
- Visas are valid only for a three-month period (so don’t apply too early).
- Required documents to get a visa (to be collected by the tour company) include proof of vaccination and medical insurance.
- Visitors must submit proof of a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure.
- Visitors must sign a written “pledge” saying they will comply with all health regulations (including mask-wearing) under potential penalty of detention or deportation.
- Visitors must download a health and tracking app to their smartphone for use during their trip.
- Unlike the previous “test tours,” current tours are allowed to travel anywhere in Japan.
Further information can be found on the latest entry requirement document supplied by the Consulate-General of Japan in Los Angeles, with a useful FAQ link.
What tour companies recommend for Japan travel
Given the long list of requirements for and restrictions on travel to Japan, the reaction from both tour operators and potential tourists has been mixed. While there’s excitement about Japan reopening, there’s some trepidation about how enjoyable, or even how feasible, these trips may be, given the onerous regulations.
“Interest has been huge,” said Kathie Callum, director of sales for the Kyoto-based Oku Japan tour company, which specializes in off-the-beaten-track tours. She told TPG she is “thrilled that there is greater clarity on guidelines for operating tours after so many months of waiting,” and that people “have been emailing and calling right away — even before the ink was dry on the operating requirements.”
“We have many guests who have been chomping at the bit to travel to Japan,” said Becky Youman, director of communications for TCS World Travel, a company offering high-end customized tours. “Some of them have been waiting for a couple of years,” Youman continued. “They are so excited to see that Japan is opening.” Kay Allen, communications manager for Japan National Tourism’s Los Angeles office, shared that “JNTO has been experiencing a high influx of inquiries from prospective U.S. tourists interested in planning their trip to Japan.”
Is now the right time to book your Japan tour?
Matt Berna, president of Intrepid Travel, North America, doesn’t think so.
“Unfortunately, on review of these guidelines, conditions are currently too restrictive for us to operate Intrepid trips,” he shared in a statement with TPG. “We will continue to monitor the situation closely and will advise customers on departures in the second half of July in the weeks ahead.”
Oku Japan’s Callum said it’s still in the tour-planning process as there was only a “short span of time to pore over all the details and ask the follow-up questions to make sure we are meeting all the necessary requirements [from the Japanese government].” The company is developing some “special small-group guided summer departures for July and August that will fully meet the current requirements.” However, Oku’s fall tours are currently open for booking.
At TCS, Youman said the company is “in the midst of planning trips now for departure later this year.” Adventure travel company MT Sobek previously shared with TPG that its regular fall tours are open for booking, as the company is “pretty confident” things will be close to “normal” by then.
What to expect when traveling to Japan now
Given the newness of the travel regulations, nobody is fully sure how things will play out with the new tour groups in Japan. Some outlets have reported that the tourists will require 100% supervision from arrival to departure, but others say travelers will still have the free time to explore on their own. The draconian-sounding threats of detention or deportation for those not wearing masks or following other rules seem to be reserved for only the worst-case scenarios. Still, nobody can say for sure.
“The information that the government is putting out [related to tourism rules] is incomprehensible, whether in English or Japanese,” one frustrated local tour operator shared with TPG. “None of it has any binding force,” he said, regarding mask-wearing and group supervision requirements. “When foreigners start arriving, none of it will be enforced. Since I’ll be leading tours and I don’t wear a mask myself, how am I supposed to force my customers to wear masks?”
Tourists shouldn’t expect to be followed around by police trying to enforce these rules. “Tour guides are responsible for making sure that the travelers in their tour groups are traveling safely and respectfully,” JNTO’s Allen said. “It’s mostly a matter of acting with respect,” Oku Japan founder Matt Malcomson told TPG. “At the moment everyone [in Japan] wears masks everywhere — and there is no legal mandate to do so. It’s just peer pressure really. As long as the tour clients abide by the spirit of that there won’t be any issues.” The fine print of the tourism regulations does specifically mention that mask-wearing is not required in most outdoor situations, and that visitors have some degree of leeway in separating from their tour groups.
In busy international Japanese cities like Tokyo and Osaka — where it’s already common to see foreigners who are there as residents or on work visas — you can expect the atmosphere to feel like it did pre-pandemic, albeit with increased masks and hand sanitizers. “To be honest, I didn’t notice any difference in Tokyo [from before the pandemic]. Almost every bar and restaurant was overflowing with people and there were plenty of foreigners around too,” journalist Jamie Lafferty told TPG after his trip to Japan a few weeks ago. Once you travel to more remote destinations in Japan, there may be some degree of hesitation among locals when it comes to interaction. There might also be a stricter adherence to group travel guidelines.
Japan is officially open for tourism again, although only for visitors coming on group tours with accredited companies. Tour operators are seeing a boom in demand and interest for travel to Japan, and they expect many tours to be booked up in the near future. Because of the potentially restrictive requirements and the uncertainty of getting a true travel experience, cautious or more independent travelers might want to wait until fall when things might be operating closer to “normal” again in Japan. However, for eager travelers willing to follow some extra rules, now may be the time to book that long-delayed Japan journey.
Featured photo by tackune/Shutterstock.com.
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