Sayonara, Japan -- for now

March 06, 2020 12:51
Tourists wearing face masks walk near the Sensoji temple in Tokyo. Japan’s travel-related industries are feeling the pain from tighter immigration controls in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Reuters

If you had any plans of visiting Japan this spring to enjoy the cherry blossoms, you may be forced to rethink your options. And the same could even apply to the Olympic Games in the summer.

Travel to Japan is no longer so simple for Hongkongers as Tokyo has put in place new rules in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. 

On Thursday, Japan announced, among other things, that it is temporarily suspending a visa-waiver program for Hong Kong passport holders who want to come in as short-stay tourists.

The move came as authorities seek to beef up the nation's defenses against Covid-19 and prevent a surge in infections ahead of the Olympics, whose schedule has come into doubt due to the epidemic.

The Shinzo Abe government has good reason, no doubt, to tighten the immigration controls, which include 14-day quarantine for all visitors from China and South Korea, and entry ban on foreign visitors from parts of South Korea and Iran.

Still, for Hongkongers, the suspension of visa-free arrangement rankles, and many frequent travelers, who consider Japan their second home, are feeling deeply hurt.

People who booked Sakura tours or had planned Easter holiday getaways to the Land of the Rising Sun might see their travel plans thrown off gear. 

Over 1,600 Hong Kong people from 85 group tours will have to cancel their Japanese trips, according to Alice Chan, Executive Director of the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong.

The number of people affected overall will be far more than that, if you consider individual travelers and those who bought hotel and airline packages.

More than 2.2 million Hong Kong people visited Japan in 2018, according to the data released by Japan National Tourism Organization last June.

That was almost like one in three people has traveled there, the highest level among any nation or region in the world.

Japan was the top tourist destination for Hongkongers, beating Taiwan and Thailand, thanks in no small part to the popularity of Japanese food and culture among the city's residents.

Last year, about 2 million people from Hong Kong visited Japan. 

In a survey, more than one in four respondents said they visited Japan more than 10 times. Among the frequent travelers, 60 percent said they visited Japan more than twice in the past year.

Many Hong Kong ladies would vote for the clean and orderly Tokyo any day, in terms of travel choice, compared to Beijing even though the Chinese capital may offer lower trip expenditure.

But now, the coronavirus outbreak and the tightened immigration controls will prompt people to revisit their Japan plans this season.

A lot of folks, meanwhile, are wondering how Japan, known for its very high standards of hygiene and cleanliness, has found itself caught up in the coronavirus crisis.

Covid-19 will exact a heavy toll on the travel and tourism-related businesses in the country, as well as the broader Japanese economy. 

The number of infections has topped 1,000 in Japan, with over 700 of those cases linked to the Diamond Princess cruise-ship that had been quarantined off Yokohama.

With authorities still grappling with containing the outbreak, the question now is whether Tokyo can host the Olympics as per schedule, from July 24, or if it will have to postpone the games to winter.

As we wait and watch, let's pray for the speedy recovery of Japan -- and the quick restoration of our visa-free arrangements. 

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EJ Insight writer