Japan received more than 30 million foreign tourists a year. This year, less than 10,000 ran the gauntlet of strict entry controls. Companies that cater to overseas travelers say the restrictions are pushing them to the wall.
“It’s 100 guests against zero now. There is no one [from abroad]”, explains Yabe Shunsaku, owner of an owl cafe. The “owl concierge” and his wife run a cafe where customers can see 36 of the birds up close. Their business is in the Akihabara area of Tokyo, which attracted once hordes of foreign visitors interested in electronics, anime and gaming.
Animal cafes are popular with foreign tourists, and Yabe’s Akiba Fukurou is no exception. Before the pandemic, some 2,000 foreign guests visited the cafe each month. In fact, says Yabe, 98% of their customers came from abroad.
Japan’s cautious reopening
Japan has gradually eased its entry restrictions for foreign travelers as the coronavirus pandemic subsided.
On Wednesday, officials further relaxed some rules. They raised the daily cap on the number of people entering Japan to 50,000 from 20,000 previously. No person who has received a third vaccination should present proof of a negative PCR test.
This follows the June reopening of the country to foreign tourists after a hiatus of more than two years. Visitors from abroad have been allowed to return provided they join a tour group with a guide. It didn’t turn out to be particularly attractive, and as a result just over 8,000 tourists arrived in June and July.
Tourists are now allowed to move freely, but must book their flights and accommodation through a travel agency. They also need a visa.
Hit business hard
Tokyo-based research firm Teikoku Databank says that by early September the pandemic had forced more than 4,000 businesses to shut down. Restaurants have been the hardest hit, with 607 businesses going bankrupt. There were 508 in the construction industry, 209 in food wholesalers and 163 in the hotel industry.
“Many companies focused on foreign travelers are going bankrupt,” says Nakanishi Yasuhiro, president of a company that runs the Tsunagu Japan website, which provides information to international travelers in eight languages. “These include hostels, guesthouses and sites offering tourist experiences.”
Nakanishi’s company surveyed 1,700 potential travelers to 52 countries in early July. Over 70% of respondents said they would stay away or likely stay away from Japan due to the need to be part of a tour group.
Even if it’s no longer necessary, Nakanishi says having to involve a travel agency will still be a hurdle, so the impact of the easing will be limited.
something is missing
Tokyo’s Kappabashi district, famous for its wide array of shops selling kitchenware, is one of many places in Japan that has been hit hard by declining tourist numbers. At the Kama-Asa cookware store, sales are down sharply. Before the pandemic, about half of the customers were foreigners.
“There were days when we didn’t use Japanese at the store, but those days are over,” says Yurioka Miki of Kama-Asa. “We have not seen an upsurge in the number of foreign customers.”
Earlier this year, the store set up an online shopping site and began shipping items overseas. “The pandemic has given us the opportunity to explore new sales channels and new ways to meet customer needs,” says Yurioka.
Although the website has become a permanent part of the business, it does not replace the in-person experience. “We hope to return to a situation where overseas customers can hold the items in their hands and decide what suits them.”
Adapt to survive
The Owl Cafe couple also managed to find a way to stay in business. They have upgraded their website and social media game to reach more potential customers in Japan. They have also started offering support to other owl owners as a side business.
“I knew if I waited any longer our business would be ruined,” Yabe says. To cover food and medical bills that amount to thousands of dollars each month, he also turned to a crowdfunding website. Nearly 800 people donated, committing about $70,000 in total. “A lot of people have been supportive, and the money buys us some time,” says Yabe.
For Yabe and his wife, coffee isn’t just a business. It’s a labor of love. Closing it would be like losing your family. “Even when we didn’t have any customers, I couldn’t think of the possibility of closing the cafe,” says Yabe, “I couldn’t bear to lose my owls.”