Japan lifts COVID border restrictions to welcome back foreign tourists

A man and a woman pose for a selfie at the entrance of Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto, Japan, October 11, 2022.


Tokyo — Eager to admire the colorful foliage, eat sushi and go shopping, droves of tourists from overseas began arriving in Japan on Tuesday. It was a welcome influx, marking the end of more than two years coronavirus– fighting border restrictions that have left Japan’s once-thriving tourism sector gasping for air.

“We got the news that we can finally come. We are really, really happy,” said Nadine Lackmann, a German woman who was among the throngs of tourists arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on Tuesday.

Travelers like Lackmann were expected to provide a much-needed 5 trillion yen ($35 billion) boost to the world’s third-largest economy, and the flood of visitors is expected to continue to grow.

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The daily limit of 50,000 arrivals has been removed. Airlines have added flights in response to the full opening of borders. Visa-free travel is back for short-term business visits and tourism from more than 60 countries.

David Beall, a Los Angeles-based photographer who has been to Japan 12 times, said he had already booked a flight, planning to go to Fukui, Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. The last time he was in Japan was in October 2019. But it’s the everyday things the American looks forward to, like eating Japan’s popular pork-chicken dish, tonkatsu.

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“As cliché as it sounds, coming back to Japan after so long is what I’m looking forward to. That, of course, includes hopefully meeting new people, eating the food I’ve missed like good tonkatsu, being in nature at that time of year, riding the trains,” he said.

Japan’s National Tourism Association said the country welcomed just under 32 million inbound tourists in 2019, before the pandemic hit. But as CBS News senior foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports, even with the borders open, it will likely be some time before Japan’s travel sector enjoys such numbers again.

A major reason for this is China’s strict “zero COVID” policy.

Before the pandemic, nearly 12 million people visited annually from China and Hong Kong, accounting for nearly a third of Japan’s total tourism traffic. Foreigners were also big, bringing in more than 40% of all money funneled by international travelers to Japan in 2019, at around $33 billion.

Tourists enjoy the Lunar New Year in Kobe's Chinatown
Chinese tourists take a selfie at Nankinmachi Square in Kobe, China Town, Japan on February 8, 2016 as they visit to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty

So while Japan rolled out the welcome carpet to all travelers on Tuesday, there won’t be many Chinese among them. Chinese citizens who leave their country still face a long quarantine when they return home. For most solo travelers, it’s just not worth it, and Chinese tour companies still don’t offer international tours.

Some Japanese areas that used to see particularly large numbers of Chinese tourists, such as Shizuoka, just west of Mount Fuji, will have to start marketing their scenery and cuisine more aggressively to prospective tourists from elsewhere around the world.

The only protocols still in place for entering Japan are that travelers must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with a booster, or have a negative PCR test within 72 hours of departure. Almost all visitors from the US, the rest of Asia, Europe and South America who meet these conditions will not need to be quarantined.

Visitors may need to adjust to face masks, which most Japanese wear almost everywhere outside their homes. Many stores and restaurants require customers to wear masks and sanitize their hands. Some facilities are still closing early or have closed completely.

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