If you were looking forward to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, you weren't the only one. Japan itself was counting on the event to help hit new record tourism numbers. Last year, the country welcomed 31.9 million visitors, the majority coming from within Asia, but the country's 2020 Olympic bid was a significant part of its long-standing plan to start hosting large-scale events (like last year's 2019 Rugby World Cup) to showcase efforts the destination has made to attract a more diverse range of international travelers.
"Tokyo was selected as an Olympic city way back in 2011 when Tohoku and the country, in general, was recovering from their biggest tsunami in history," said James Mundy, a representative from United Kingdom-based tour operator InsideJapan. "The Games has provided a lot of hope for a recovering Japan in general."
Unfortunately, late March brought disappointing news when an official statement announced the 2020 Olympic Games—which would have kicked off opening ceremonies this Friday—would be postponed until 2021 due to the ongoing worldwide coronavirus pandemic. Four months later, with COVID-19 cases rising in countries, and tight border restrictions still in place around the globe, there's some speculation the Games just might be postponed indefinitely.
But what does this mean for the expected flush of tourism Japan was expecting? Though many popular sites have reopened within the country, borders are currently still closed for non-nationals from more than 130 countries. Tour operators have been forced to cancel tours running around the time of the Games and reschedule them for next year. Still, Mundy said, "over 70 percent of those people have rebooked for 2021, which places huge confidence in InsideJapan as a tour operator, Japan as a country, and the travel industry."
According to Skift, Japan has also not lost confidence in its ambitious growth goals and remains optimistic about increasing tourism numbers. Olympics or no Olympics, the country has set a goal to double the number of annual visitors by 2030—rising to 60 million yearly visitors by that time.
Luckily, much of the pre-Olympics legwork that went into making Japan a more tourist-friendly destination is already in place. So, when the country opens back up for tourism, international visitors can look forward to tourist infrastructure changes, accessibility to alternative accommodation options like Airbnb, and more straightforward navigation through the often-daunting language barrier. The changes were designed to help tourists feel more comfortable and empowered throughout their stay, with the ultimate goal of encouraging them to book longer stays and explore beyond the long-standing, heavily-touristed hotspots like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto.
A smoother visit starts at the airport, where Keiko Matsuura, a spokeswoman from the Japan National Tourism Organization, says Japan has worked on creating a streamlined entry and exit process at airports involving Biocart terminals that will take photos and fingerprint scans while passengers wait in immigration lines. She says there's also a dedicated 24/7 Japan Visitor Hotline available in English, Korean, and Chinese to assist foreign travelers in the case of an emergency, natural disaster, and general tourist information. They've also created a mobile app that gives tourists on-the-go, on-demand information about transportation routes, maps, weather, emergency alerts, tourist sites, and nearby emergency and convenience points of interest from ATMs to hospitals in the palm of their hand. "In addition to the hotline and the official app," Matsuura added, "there are more than 1,000 certified Tourist Information Centers that visitors can drop by throughout the country, from Hokkaido down to Okinawa."
Japan is also likely to be appealing to global travelers—Olympic Games or not—because of how well it has handled and controlled the novel coronavirus outbreak within the country. According to Johns Hopkins University, Japan has reported just 26,328 total cases of coronavirus and only 988 deaths, while the country's recovery rate hovers around 78 percent. As travelers seek to test the waters and get back into travel, many are likely to lean toward destinations with good track records during the pandemic, like Japan.
In response to the continuing threat of the pandemic, Japan decided to hit the brakes on much of its tourism marketing. Instead, Mr. Naohito Ise, executive director of Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), says they are pointing potential travelers to their "Hope Lights the Way" website and campaign. which focuses on digital tourism, in the hopes that it will inspire and encourage "would-be travelers to continue to dream of their next trip to Japan."