Japan reopens to tourists amid a shortage of shuttered gift shops and hotel staff

Japan reopens to tourists amid a shortage of shuttered gift shops and hotel staff
Written by admin

Kantaro Komiya and Kentaro Sugiyama

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan faces headwinds amid tourism boom hopes, shuttered shops and a shortage of hospitality workers as Japan opens its doors to visitors this week after more than two years of pandemic isolation.

Starting Tuesday, Japan will restart visa-free travel to dozens of countries, ending some of the world’s most stringent border controls to slow the spread of COVID-19. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is counting on tourism to boost the economy and reap some benefits from the yen’s drop to a 24-year low.

Arata Sawa is among those eager for the return of foreign tourists, who previously made up 90% of its guests in its traditional inn.

“Just like pre-COVID, I hope and expect many foreigners to come to Japan,” said Sawa, the third generation owner of the Sawanoya ryokan in Tokyo.

A little over half a million visitors have arrived so far in 2022, compared to a record 31.8 million in 2019. The government had a target of 40 million with the Summer Olympics in 2020, until both were canceled by the coronavirus.

Kishida said last week that the government is aiming to pull 5 trillion yen ($34.5 billion) in annual tourist spending. However, this target may be too ambitious for an industry that has been atrophied during the pandemic. Hotel employment fell 22% between 2019 and 2021, according to government data.

Nomura Research Institute economist Takahide Kiuchi wrote in a report that spending from overseas visitors will reach just 2.1 trillion yen by 2023 and not exceed pre-COVID levels by 2025.

According to the Nikkei newspaper, president Yuji Akasaka said last week that flag carrier Japan Airlines Co. Despite this, he added that international travel demand may not fully recover until 2025.


Narita Airport, Japan’s largest international airport, about 70 kilometers from Tokyo, remains eerily quiet, with nearly half of its 260 shops and restaurants closing their shutters.

“It’s like half a ghost town,” said Maria Satherley, 70, from New Zealand, pointing to the Terminal 1 departure area.

Satherley, whose son lives on the northern island of Hokkaido, said he would like to return with his grandchild this winter, but likely won’t because he is too young to be vaccinated, a prerequisite for tourists to Japan.

“We’ll wait until next year,” he said.

President Sawato Shindo said that Amina Collection Co. has closed its three gift shops in Narita and is unlikely to reopen until next spring.

The company has reallocated personnel and supplies from the airport in its 120-store chain in Japan as it refocused on domestic tourism during the pandemic.

“I don’t think there will be a sudden return to the pre-pandemic situation,” Shindo said. Said. “The restrictions are still pretty strict compared to other countries.”

Japan still strongly encourages people to wear masks and avoid speaking loudly indoors. The cabinet approved on Friday to change hotel regulations so they can refuse guests who fail to comply with infection controls during a pandemic.

A tourism company consultant said many service workers who asked not to be identified had found better working conditions and wages in other areas over the past two years, so it may be difficult to withdraw them.

“The hospitality industry has a very bad reputation for low wages, so if the government is valuing tourism as an important industry, financial support or subsidies are likely to be needed,” he added.

The Japanese government is launching a domestic travel initiative this month offering transportation and accommodation discounts, similar to the Go to Travel campaign, which was cut short after the rise in COVID infections in 2020.


According to market research firm Teikoku Databank, almost 73% of hotels nationwide said they experienced a shortage of regular workers in August.

A lake town in Kawaguchiko, at the foot of Mt. Fuji said hans had trouble finding staff amid Japan’s tight labor market before the pandemic and now expect a similar bottleneck, a trade group employee who asked not to be identified.

This sentiment was echoed by Akihisa Inaba, general manager of the hot-spring resort Yokikan in Shizuoka, central Japan, who said short staffing during the summer meant workers had to take time off.

“Naturally, the labor shortage will become more apparent when inbound travel returns,” Inaba said. “I mean, I’m not so sure we can be overjoyed.”

Whether overseas visitors wear face masks and comply with other common infection controls in Japan is another concern. Strict border controls were widely popular throughout most of the pandemic, and fears remain about the emergence of new viral variants.

“We’ve only had a few foreign guests since the beginning of the epidemic,” said Tokyo innkeeper Sawa. “Almost all of them were wearing masks, but I’m not really sure if anyone from here would do the same.”

“My plan is to ask them to wear masks while inside the building,” he said.

($1 = 145,0100 yen)

(Report by Kantaro Komiya, Kentaro Sugiyama, Ritsuko Shimizu and Tom Bateman; by Rocky Swift; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

About the author


Leave a Comment