Can I Travel to Japan in 2021?
Yes, some people can probably travel to Japan in summer of 2021, but not everyone. Don’t start packing your bags because nothing is certain at this point. The government has not committed to anything yet, but they’ve hinted at easing travel restrictions in April 2021. This implies they won’t open the country up completely. The Japanese government has been extremely strict about allowing tourists in because they are determined to make the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics a success, and not a superspreading event. However, most people I know in Japan doubt the games will happen at all1. And the tourism industry is especially pessimistic about this.
If the games proceed as planned in July 2021, that will be a good indicator that inbound tourism2 will finally begin its recovery phase. After more than a year of zero business due to the pandemic, this will be a welcome change. That said, tourism won’t be back to normal until 2024 or 2025. I’ll talk more about why recovery will take so long, but first I have to address the worst-case scenario.
If the government has to cancel or severely cut back the Olympics, that could push back fully opening borders to international travelers until spring of 2023. This could manifest as a continuation of the policy only allowing citizens, residence visa holders, and business people in so-called travel bubbles3 into Japan until 2022. The Tokyo Olympics situation looks increasingly bad because Olympic refunds have already begun and consumer confidence is at an all-time low in regards to international travel everywhere. This is especially true of a country like Japan, which has a reputation for being very distant, costly, and not very accessible.
What Will Tourism in Japan Look Like after 2021?
For now, let’s assume the Olympics will proceed as scheduled in 2021, then international travel slowly resumes. It would be insanity to think that come April 2021, anyone who wants to can just hop on a plane and enter Japan. There will most like be priority given to countries that have handled the COVID-19 outbreak well and there will probably be continued restrictions on countries that have not. Also, it’s not unreasonable to think some countries will be locked out altogether. Because of all this uncertainty, I expect inbound tourism to recover very, very slowly.
Furthermore, Japan’s inbound travel industry works on a kind of two-year cycle in regards to each individual tourist or group of tourists. The average person books a group tour or begins planning their trip to Japan at least one year in advance4. Few people just hop on a plane and head to Japan for the weekend. Furthermore, because Japan is not a cheap country, younger travelers5 spend about a year saving up before beginning their booking process. Again, few people can just jump on a plane and shout “Woohoo! I’m goin’ to Japan!”
Normalization of Travel in 2022
In the best-case scenario, I predict tourists will begin trickling into Japan in autumn 2021. From a business perspective, it won’t be great6. But for the experience of travelers, it should be wonderful. Crowds of international tourists, especially the despised large groups7, should be much fewer than we’ve seen in the last six years. All the sites renovated in anticipation of #Tokyo2020 will still look brand-spanking new, just minus the crowds. This will be true all throughout the country, not only the capital.
I suspect that by spring 2022 travel in and out of Japan will normalize. In fact, I’m certain that even though Japan will once again have peak seasons (spring and autumn), the numbers of international tourists will remain very low. 2020 put a lot of people out of work and sadly they just won’t have the cash on hand to take their dream trip to Japan. I want to reiterate that this is not good for local guides such as myself, nor is it particularly good for the mid and large sized tour companies or the airlines either. It is, however, great for travelers like you. The low numbers of inbound travelers in 2020 should translate to less crowds and Japan will just “feel like Japan” again. Repeat travelers to the country who came before 2015 know exactly what I’m talking about.
Learning from the Past for a Better Future
I’m sure that by spring 2025, Japan will start seeing a large number of foreign travelers coming to Japan – some for the first time, but many for the second or third time. But will things ever be the same again? Honestly, I hope not. I’m optimistic big changes will come from the ground up as the Japanese tourism industry reimagines itself and gets back on its feet.
Prior to 2014, Japan wasn’t really a tourist destination except to hardcore Japanophiles. Since 2016, it was breaking inbound tourism records every year. Scrambling to get as many paying customers here as quickly as possible for as cheap as possible, the tour companies built their businesses on getting people into Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and a handful of other perennially popular destinations.
The old model is Unsustainable
I live in Tokyo and I love it. And it’s a pretty populous city, to say the least.
But depending how you cut up the numbers, let’s say there are 11 million people living there. You can throw another couple million tourists in the mix for a few days and no one cares. The infrastructure is there. But Kyoto, for example, is a small city with a population of, like, three million or something. If you dump a couple million foreigners there, the whole thing just falls apart. Locals have been complaining for years that Kyoto doesn’t “feel like Kyoto” anymore. It’s like Disneyland-with-geisha. I don’t want to throw all the blame at the large tour companies. The Japanese government has done the exact same thing. They’ve spent six years promoting the same cities they’ve been pushing since the 1960s. All of this has been happening at the expense of all the cool, lesser known towns that, frankly, offer a far richer and more authentic Japanese experience.
To be blunt, in an effort to build up a successful inbound tourism industry and make Japan a premiere international destination, the Japanese government didn’t just sacrifice authenticity. They inadvertently caused a huge problem: overtourism. Or as they call it in Japanese, “tourism pollution.” I can’t tell you what the large tour companies are doing about this, probably nothing, to be honest. But I can tell you that small, boutique travel operators, such as my colleagues, have been pushing for unique experiences that aren’t on Trip Advisor8. And they’ve been pushing for this for a while now.
Of course, Kyoto is amazing. But there are amazing towns that don’t get many foreign tourists and are dying for visitors. They might not be English-friendly yet, and they most likely don’t know how to promote how awesome they are to foreigners. But they’re definitely worth visiting! It is my sincere hope, that the entire industry is using this awful year of no business to do some soul searching. I hope they are re-evaluating their strategies for showcasing how awesome Japan is in a sustainable way once the pandemic is over.
Support Local Guides and Businesses
If you’ve read this far, thank you. I just want to close with a simple request to anyone thinking about traveling to Japan in or after 2021. In your country, you’ve probably noticed that small businesses – mom and pop shops, family-owned restaurants, etc. – have been suffering the most during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether you’re booking through a travel agent, a tour company, or doing everything yourself, I suggest you consider finding an independent, specialized local guide for at least one of your days in Japan.
I would define a competent private guide as someone who’s been in Japan 10 years or more and specializes in something9. These people are passionate and enthusiastic about Japan and they want you to be passionate and enthusiastic too. They’re knowledgeable about the culture and neighborhoods they focus on. If you’re interested in Buddhism, find a guide who’s really into Buddhism. Are you in love with Japanese anime and manga? I’m sure you can easily find a hardcore otaku guide. If you’re into Japanese culture and Japanese history, there’s probably a kindred nerd out there for you10. Or, maybe you’re the outdoors type. Plenty of guides are waiting to rough it with you.
A Great Guide is good for You and Good for Japan
There are plenty of great people out there in the biz who are hurting right now, but are ready to give you the best day or days of your holiday. They may not be on Trip Advisor. Your booking agent probably has no idea who they are. You just need to dig a little deeper online and you’re bound to find a diamond in the rough.
I think it’s safe for me to speak on behalf of all those independent guides, all the mom and pop restaurants, and all the ryokan (Japanese style inns) and hot springs. We can’t wait for you to come to Japan. And while I don’t recommend rushing to travel to Japan in 2021, I’m confident things will be better than ever. It’s just going to take some time.
Refunds for the Olympics began this month, November 2020. This is all rumor, but allegedly organizers think refund requests will be high. I’ve heard the phrase “more than half of all tickets” more than once. If true, this does not bode well for the games.↩︎
That is, foreigners traveling to Japan.↩︎
Relationships formed between Japan and a handful of other nations that have the virus somewhat under control.↩︎
Because, again, Japan has a reputation for being very distant, costly, and not very accessible.↩︎
By younger traveler, I’m using the 25-45 year-old demographic.↩︎
Afterall, usually spring and autumn are our peak seasons and are generally busy, profitable, and lots of fun.↩︎
Let’s be honest, any group over 10 people is annoying for everyone else lololol. I’m mostly talking about groups of 20 and above. And before you accuse me shaming people, I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve led groups of up to 13. The difference is, my groups are always super polite. But the reason for that is a story for another day.↩︎
No disrespect, but Trip Advisor ruins everything. As soon as something gets listed on there, it’s officially “not cool anymore.”↩︎
By “specializes in something,” I mean they have a lot of enthusiasm for this work because they’re passionate specific aspects of Japanese culture. Not just “I’ll take you to the Imperial Palace Gardens or whatever, man.”↩︎