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Japan axes covid test for travelers but faces battle to revive tourism

An arcade in Beppu, in southern Japan, last month. The country's tourism industry is suffering as pandemic measures continue to deter visitors. (Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg News)

TOKYO — Japan said Wednesday it would end a requirement for vaccinated travelers to have a coronavirus test to enter the country, a gradual step toward reviving a hard-hit tourism industry but that comes as other restrictions continue to deter visitors.

After enacting some of the strictest border measures during the pandemic, Japan has been gradually allowing nonresidents to visit. But tourists are still not allowed in unless they are a part of an authorized tour group, their every move watched closely by a licensed guide.

Many Asian countries continue to impose quarantine or testing rules for international arrivals, but Japan’s restrictions were out of step with others in the Group of Seven major economies. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Wednesday that Japan would continue to ease border control measures in phases, “to enable smooth entry into Japan in a manner similar to other G-7 countries.”

How to navigate Japan's mandatory tours, travel restrictions and coronavirus protocols

Among those steps is raising the cap on daily entrants, currently at 20,000, but Kishida did not give a specific figure. Japanese broadcaster NHK reported Wednesday that the government is considering lifting the requirement that tourists who enter as a part of a group tour be accompanied by a guide at all times.

International students, some business travelers and family members of Japanese residents are allowed to enter the country. At present, anyone headed to Japan must get a coronavirus test within 72 hours before departure to the country, register the result with the government and get a QR code for immigration. Japan requires a nucleic acid amplification test, such as a PCR test, which tends to be less accessible and more expensive than at-home rapid antigen tests.

Beginning Sept. 7, Japan will lift the testing requirement for boosted travelers who have had three vaccine shots, Kishida said, speaking from his residence during a remote news conference after he tested positive for the virus.

Tom Cruise in Japan? Okay. Ordinary tourists in Japan? Not okay.

Group tours resumed in June after a trial run, but those visitors are subject to many restrictions, including booking a tour with a guide or company registered with the government and buying travel insurance.

That same month, only 252 tourists entered the country, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. In July, the number rose to about 7,900. But that is a far cry from pre-pandemic levels; Japan welcomed a record 32 million foreign tourists in 2019 and had aimed to reach 40 million in 2020.

For months, business leaders and tourism industry groups have been calling on Japan to fully reopen its borders, arguing that it would bring much-needed revenue to invigorate the economy and that U.S. tourists would be eager to take advantage of the weak yen. Travel-related spending by foreigners plummeted from about $38 billion in 2019 to just under $1 billion in 2021, according to Nikkei Asia.

It remains unclear, however, when a full reopening would take place.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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