New entry rules go into effect next month, but the borders won’t be completely open just yet.

Japan has been reopened to foreign tourists for nearly three months now, but you wouldn’t know it by looking around. That’s because currently inbound leisure travelers are only allowed into the country as part of guided tours, which only fit within the budget and preferences of a small subset of travelers. It’s a style especially incongruent with the comparatively young demographic of international travelers interested in visiting Japan, and so while international travelers technically can enter Japan, very few are.

Things are going to get easier next week, though. In a press conference on Wednesday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced two changes to Japan’s entry regulations, which go into effect on September 7. First, the daily cap on entries into Japan will be raised from its current 20,000 people a day to 50,000. Second, the guided-tours-only requirement for foreign tourists is being abolished.

That doesn’t mean the borders are being completely opened, though. Foreign tourists will still be required to be visiting Japan as part of a “package tour.” An exact set of criteria hasn’t been announced, but ostensibly a package tour would consist of predetermined hotel accommodations, transportation, and sightseeing itinerary. The assumed benefit, from a public health perspective, is that if a tourist on a package tour were to be diagnosed as infected with the coronavirus, health officials would be able to backtrack along the itinerary to determine possible infection vectors and take appropriate action to prevent the further spread of the virus.

It’s not currently clear how comprehensive the non-guided package itineraries will be required to be. In general travel industry terms, a package tour can be as basic as airline tickets, to/from airport transportation, and hotel reservations, or as detailed as all-day sightseeing schedules and pre-set locations for each and every meal. One could also question the effectiveness of requiring tourists to stick to their itinerary without an accompanying guide to confirm that they really are doing so, but Japanese society’s rule-respecting tendencies mean that there are a lot of things in the country that run on the honor system.

While it’s not the “Hey, borders are open, come and do whatever you want!” revision that many travelers are waiting for, removing the tour guide requirement allows for less expensive tours to be offered to travelers, and also removes the bottleneck of only being able to offer as many tours as they have guides. And while package tours may sometimes still be more expensive than independent travel bookings, the ridiculously low value of the yen right now means that foreign tourists in Japan will be seeing their money going a lot further than it did before the pandemic.

Sources: Yomiuri Shimbun, TBS, Bloomberg
Top image: Pakutaso
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