Tourists will be able to visit Japan from next week on package tours without a guide, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Aug. 31, as the country moves to ease strict Covid-19 controls.
From September 7, Japan will also raise its daily cap on the number of people allowed to enter the country to 50,000, Kishida told reporters.
Japan has kept strict border restrictions in place longer than many other major economies, and only in June began allowing tourists to visit on the condition they came in tour groups accompanied by guides.
"As international exchange becomes more active worldwide, Japan will join this movement — also from the viewpoint of taking advantage of a cheap yen," said Kishida, who himself has just recovered from Covid-19.
From the same date, "we'll also make it possible for tourists from all countries to enter the country on package tours without tour guides, and we will proceed with making entry procedures smoother at airports", he added.
But the measures fall short of a full reopening and visitors are still required to book their trips through agents and obtain visas.
Public broadcaster NHK and other local media have reported that tourists will be asked to follow isolation guidelines if they test positive for Covid-19 in Japan.
Kishida said he hoped to ease border restrictions further, with industry officials keen to see the return of a waiver program that allowed tourists from much of the world to visit without a visa.
Japan hopes to eventually "enable smooth entry" in line with other Group of Seven countries, he added.
The country has never imposed a strict lockdown, and it has recorded total deaths from the disease of around 39,000 — far lower than many other countries.
Around 64 percent of the population and more than 90 percent of people aged 65 and over have received three vaccine shots.
But the country has maintained strict border rules throughout the pandemic, barring foreign residents from re-entry for several months at the height of the first waves of infection.
Group tours have been allowed since June, but only around 144,500 foreign tourists are estimated to have entered the country in July, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.
The nation welcomed a record 31.9 million foreign visitors in 2019, and had been on track to achieve its goal of 40 million in 2020 before the pandemic struck.