Japan reopens souvenir shops closed to tourists due to shortage of hotel staff

Japan reopens souvenir shops closed to tourists due to shortage of hotel staff
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TOKYO, Oct 10 (Reuters) – Hopes for a tourism boom face headwinds amid shuttered shops and a shortage of hospitality workers as Japan reopens to visitors this week after more than two years of pandemic isolation.

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

Arata Sawa is among those who want the return of foreign tourists, who previously made up 90% of guests at his traditional hotel.

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

Just over half a million visitors have come to Japan so far in 2022, compared to a record 31.8 million in 2019. The government had a target of 40 million for the 2020 Summer Olympics, both of which were cut short by the coronavirus.

Kishida said last week that the government aims to attract 5 trillion yen ($34.5 billion) in annual tourist spending. But that goal may be too ambitious for a sector weakened by the pandemic. Hotel employment fell by 22% between 2019 and 2021, according to government data.

Spending by overseas visitors will reach just 2.1 trillion yen by 2023 and not exceed pre-COVID-19 levels until 2025, Nomura Research Institute economist Takahide Kiuchi wrote in a report.

Flag carrier Japan Airlines Co (9201.T) According to the Nikkei newspaper, President Yuji Akasaka said orders had tripled since the border easing announcement last week. However, it added that international travel demand will not fully recover until around 2025.


About 70 kilometers from Tokyo, Narita Airport, Japan’s largest international airport, is eerily quiet, with about half of its 260 shops and restaurants closed.

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

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

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

Amina Collection Co has closed three souvenir shops in Narita and is unlikely to reopen them until next spring, president Sawato Shindo said.

As the company focuses on domestic tourism during the pandemic, it has reallocated staff and supplies from the airport to other locations in its chain of 120 stores around Japan.

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

Japan still encourages people to wear masks indoors and avoid talking loudly. On Friday, the Cabinet of Ministers approved changes to hotel rules so that they can refuse guests who do not comply with infection control during the outbreak.

Many service workers have found better working conditions and wages elsewhere over the past two years, so it may be difficult to bring them back, said a tourism company consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The hospitality industry is very famous for its low wages, so if the government considers tourism as a major industry, there is a need for financial support or subsidies,” he said.

The Japanese government a domestic travel initiative This month, offering transport and accommodation discounts similar to the Go Travel campaign, which was shortened in 2020 after a spike in COVID infections.


Almost 73% of hotels nationwide reported experiencing regular staff shortages in August, according to market research firm Teikoku Databank.

Kawaguchiko, a lake town at the foot of Mt. Fuji was struggling to find staff before the pandemic Japan’s tight labor market and now they expect a similar bottleneck, said a trade group official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

That sentiment was echoed by Akihisa Inaba, general manager of the Yokikan hot spring resort in the central Japanese city of Shizuoka, who said staff were forced to forego vacations due to short staffing during the summer.

“Obviously, when inbound travel returns, the labor shortage will be more pronounced,” Inaba said. “So I’m not so sure we’ll be overjoyed.”

Another concern is whether visitors from overseas are wearing face masks and following other general infection controls in Japan. Strict border controls were widespread throughout most of the pandemic, and fears of the emergence of new virus variants remain.

“We’ve had few foreign guests since the pandemic started,” said Sawa, a Tokyo bartender. “Almost all of them wore masks, but I’m not sure that visitors from here will do the same.”

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

($1 = 145.0100 yen)

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Reporting by Kantaro Komiya, Kentaro Sugiyama, Ritsuko Shimizu and Tom Bateman; Written by Rocky Swift; Edited by Ana Nicolaci da Costa

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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