Japan’s New Travel Rules: Masks, Insurance, Guides

Japan’s much-anticipated reopening to travelers will begin this month — but ever so slowly, ever so carefully. When the first international visitors arrive, beginning this Friday, June 10, they will be required to wear masks, take out medical insurance to cover expenses in the event they contract Covid-19, and be chaperoned by tour guides throughout their trip.

During the first phase of the reopening, travelers coming from 98 countries, including the United States, will be allowed entry, but they must be booked on package tours, officials from the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) announced at a press conference on Tuesday. Guides will ensure that visitors wear their masks and those who refuse may be sent home.

While on a trip to London in early May, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had announced that his country would reopen to international tourists in June. “We will further relax controls, so that in June it will be possible to enter the country as smoothly as other G7 nations,” he said.

Kishida has long credited his country’s strict entry policies with helping Japan weather the pandemic better than many other nations. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Japan has recorded fewer than 31,000 deaths due to Covid-19, at a rate of 24.3 deaths per 100,000 residents, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Comparatively, over one million Americans have died from Covid-19, at a rate of 306.1 deaths per 100,000 residents.

In 2019, Japan welcomed nearly 32 million foreign visitors who spent $36 billion. But, largely due to Japan’s strict pandemic border measures, the number of foreign visitors plummeted to just 250,000 last year, according to the JTA.

Despite Prime Minister Kishida’s ultimate aim of aligning with the G7 countries, Japan’s new travel guidelines will not resemble protocols in other wealthy nations, which, by and large, have scuppered most Covid-related restrictions and allow travelers to move about independently.

In contrast, Japanese travel agencies will set tour routes to avoid crowded areas and select hotels and attractions with strict antivirus measures. At the time of booking, they will be required to outline the rules and only accept customers who agree to comply.

“Understanding of the guidelines and compliance will lead to the smooth resumption of inbound tourism and its expansion,” Tetsuo Saito, Japan’s minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, told reporters at Tuesday’s news conference.

Last month, Japan eased its mask guidance. Masks are now only necessary outdoors in crowded places, and continue to be required in most indoor spaces and on public transport, according to the health ministry.

Japanese tour guides will also monitor travelers’ health while they are in Japan. Any traveler who tests positive for Covid-19 while in the country will be transferred to a medical institution. Travelers will also be asked to report back if they test positive within a week after returning home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently has Japan on a Level 3 travel health notice, meaning that the destination has a “high” risk of Covid-19 spread. Notably, the United States and most other nations in the world are also at Level 3.

To visit countries at Level 3, the CDC recommends that travelers be “up to date” with Covid-19 vaccines – meaning fully vaccinated at boosted – before traveling. Three out of four (75.1%) Americans age 12 and over are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data, but less than half of Americans eligible for a booster shot have received one.