From September 7th, tourists can enter on unguided tours - what does that mean and is it as good as it sounds?
Here we go again! To some fanfare, Prime Minister Kishida has for months been promising to get tourism going again by bringing border restrictions in line with other G7 members. So when he gave a press conference a couple of weeks ago saying that "unguided tours" would be possible it seemed like a big step in the right direction. (See our previous, more optimistic, article here).
However, as often the devil is in the detail. So here are the main headline points of what is possible for tourists from September 7th, 2022. Note this is in addition to those travelling on supervised tours where an itinerary is set in stone and the tourists are guided and supervised every step of the way.
What's new from September 7th?
- Pre-departure PCR tests will no longer required if you are fully vaccinated (3 vaccinations including booster). If you are coming to Japan, visit the MOFA page for latest info on what is required in terms of vaccination proof and quarantine.
- The number of arrivals will be capped at 50,000 per day (up from 20,000 previously).
- Tourists will be welcomes from all countries.
- Tours will no longer need to be supervised, but visas are still required.
SOUNDS AMAZING! But what's the catch...? Well firstly, to be clear, this does not mean Japan is reopening to individual, self-guided tourists
- According the the directions given by the government, non-supervised travel must be 100% booked through a Japanese travel agent. This includes ALL accommodation and flights - both domestic AND international.
- Travellers must have appropriate insurance to cover potential hospitalisation or repatriation due to Covid infections.
- The guidance specifically says that visitors cannot make their own arrangements for flights and accommodation and have the travel agent just rubber stamp those plans.
- Although the travel does not need to be supervised, agents are responsible for the tourists and should check up on them during their stay to make sure they are complying with local Covid advice.
- Only once bookings have been made can the sponsoring travel agent issue a letter of invitation for you to take to the Japanese embassy in your home country.
- Even now (before any winter rush and before the tourist visas have become available) embassies are reporting long waiting times to issue visas.
What does that even mean?
Overall it's not great. This is not an opportunity for fully independent travel as things stand. All arrangements must be done through a Japanese travel agent including flights to/from Japan, only then will an invitation letter be issued which can be taken to the Japanese embassy in your home country where you can apply for the tourist visa.
Good for mega-agents like JTB, JAL and ANA ... but not at all the same as pre-pandemic where you could jump on a plane and head to the mountains. Terrible for hotels and lodges and, basically, not good news for tourists who want to explore Japan on their own. Probably a nightmare for embassy staff trying to process visas too!
The rules are almost a step back, but they really are so insane and complex that we hold out hope that there will be enough backlash from hotels, visitors and the overwhelmed embassies that it will change. But in Japan as we know change is usually a slow process that is often at odds with logic!
So what should you do now?
If you have already booked to come to Japan in the next few months, we strongly recommend contacting your hotel or booking agent and asking what they are planning to do. If you have flights booked, contact your airline to ensure they are either transferrable or can be cancelled if you are unable to get a visa.
If you really want to visit, arrange travel through a supervised tour or through a Japanese travel agent.
Hopefully the total insanity of these rules mean that they will be re-written before another winter of tourism is lost.
Come on Japan - you are better than this!