The iconic shrines and temples of Kyoto — usually busy with tourists from around the globe — are uncharacteristically quiet this summer. As the COVID-19 pandemic limits inbound travel, Japan’s tourism industry is adapting to new types of domestic demand.
In mid-June, Japan’s government relaxed restrictions on interprefectural travel and announced that it would be exploring ways to spark life back into the tourism industry once the virus is no longer a threat. Dubbed the “Go To Travel Campaign,” the government is considering offering 50% accommodation fee subsidies of up to 20,000 yen per person per night for domestic travel.
The campaign may kick off as soon as July 22, and many of Japan’s more eager travelers are already beginning to plan their summer vacations — if somewhat cautiously.
On the road again: “Microtourism”
“Over 60% of demand right now is for trips to nearby prefectures,” says Yuna Tanaka of Rakuten Travel, Rakuten’s platform for accommodation, tours and other travel services in Japan.
A desire to avoid planes, trains and buses has travelers settling for closer destinations accessible via private transportation, something Rakuten Travel is promoting through special accommodation packages limited to people traveling within their own prefecture. “We’ve been seeing more bookings for car rentals and microtourism, so we’re expecting a significant increase in car travel over the summer.”
The pandemic is also affecting how long people are traveling. “During the months of April and May, when schools were closed and many people were working remotely, we saw a 30% year-on-year increase in stays of 10 nights or longer,” she shared. “If we only look at customers with young children, that increase was closer to 270%.”
But summer could bring a stark reversal to that trend. “Going forward, the average length of travelers’ trips is actually on the decline,” Tanaka explains. “Single-night stays are up 10% year-on-year, while multi-night stays are down by roughly the same. This could be due to fears of a potential second wave of COVID-19 infections, or concerns about this year’s summer school holidays being shortened.”
Social distancing in style: In-room gourmet and private hot springs
Even as leisure facilities around the country reopen, travelers are maintaining a strong focus on social distancing.
“There’s been a clear increase in users searching for things like ‘in-room meals’ and ‘in-room outdoor baths’ – to limit how much contact they have with people at their destination,” Tanaka says. “To cater to this demand, we’ve set up a number of pages compiling the hotels that offer these kinds of experiences.”
“We are also posting useful information about traveling safely and the COVID-19 precautions that hotels are taking, such as room-cleaning procedures, ventilation, check in/out and staff safety measures.”
A cautious reopening
Meanwhile, Rakuten Travel has also been conducting surveys to gauge how enthusiastic Japan is about hitting the road again. One 2,700-user survey from late May revealed strong feelings at each end of the spectrum: Questioned about their desire to travel again, a clear divide emerged between those still cautious (level 1) and those with itchy feet (level 10).
Nevertheless, over 70% of itchy-feeters (those who responded between 7 and 10 on their desire to travel) still expressed reluctance towards overseas travel, indicating that they would prefer to roam within Japan.
Shorter stays, rooms with hot springs and social distancing: As tourism begins to come back, Japan’s travel industry will be catering to newfound needs for comfort and relaxation in a getaway.