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Starting on Oct. 1, the government re-included Tokyo in its Go To Travel campaign, a program subsidizing domestic travel that aims to encourage spending and boost an economy suffering the effects of a global pandemic. Initially left out amid the capital’s rising coronavirus case numbers, Tokyoites can now take advantage of the government initiative, which covers up to half of eligible domestic travel expenses.

One of the outcomes of the pandemic has been renewed interest in domestic travel. Here’s how to take advantage of the Go To campaign, plus tips to stay safe when embarking on future trips.

What is the Go To Travel campaign?

Announced by tourism minister Kazuyoshi Akaba in a meeting on July 10, the Go To campaign is a ¥1.7 trillion initiative encompassing travel, food and entertainment industries to help stimulate Japan’s economy. Go To Travel is one in a four-part campaign to boost local industry significantly impacted by the pandemic — the others are Go To Eat, Go To Event and Go To Shotengai (shopping streets).

The Go To Travel campaign funds up to 50% of travel expenses for domestic trips, both overnight and one-day excursions (limited to ¥20,000/person per night and ¥10,000/person per day trip, respectively), including accommodation and transport fees. The Japanese government will subsidize 35% of the total cost; the remaining 15% is covered by discount coupons that can be used at participating hospitality, sightseeing and shopping businesses.

Here’s where it gets complicated. Travel expenses, which include transportation and accommodation costs, must make up 70% of said 50% subsidy: Therefore, 70% of the maximum ¥20,000 per day (up to ¥14,000) must be appropriated towards these expenses. The remaining 30% (maximum ¥6,000) will be awarded in the form of regional coupons.

Regional coupons are issued in units of ¥1,000, and are distributed by designated travel agencies and hotels either in paper form or electronically to a smartphone device. The coupons can be used during the period of travel in the destination prefecture and its neighboring prefectures at designated local businesses. Note that change can’t be provided for these coupons.

Checklist: Be sure to research a list of local doctor offices or travel clinics at your destination, practice social distancing and perform daily health checks while traveling. | RACHEL E.T. DAVIES
Checklist: Be sure to research a list of local doctor offices or travel clinics at your destination, practice social distancing and perform daily health checks while traveling. | RACHEL E.T. DAVIES

What trips are eligible?

All residents of Japan can apply for the campaign, which will continue through January 2021 (though it may end earlier if the budget limit is reached). Both day trips and longer overnight trips are eligible, and there’s no limitations on the number of travelers per trip, number of trips or trip length.

Travelers must make their bookings through a campaign-registered business, such as JTB, HIS and Hankyu Travel, or directly through an accommodation-booking website. You can search for participating businesses on the official Go To Travel website (Japanese only). Trips can also be reserved via Japan Wonder Travel and Booking.com, both of which provide services in English.

The discounts can be used for transport expenses if booked as part of a package through a travel agency. If accommodation is booked directly through a participating hotel’s website, individually arranged transportation fees are not eligible — except cruises, night ferries and sleeper trains.

Good news for people still hoping to save money on transport is the JR East Welcome Pass 2020. Though not affiliated with the Go To campaign, the limited-time discount pass is only available to non-Japanese passport holders and allows unlimited travel for three consecutive days on all JR East trains in Tokyo, Tohoku, Nagano and Niigata. The passes are on sale until Feb. 26, 2021, and cost ¥12,000 for adults, ¥6,000 for children.

How to travel safely

So you’ve booked a trip. What should you expect?

Last week, as part of the annual Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, Dr. Takeshi Kasai (along with other experts) gave a virtual press conference, which included a regional update on COVID-19 and responses to a number of questions regarding ways to minimize risk and reduce virus transmission. Kasai set out a number of WHO guidelines and precautions that they recommend travelers take to prevent transmission of COVID-19 while traveling, commenting that it is “very important for all people to continue to practice this healthier behavior and create and participate in this ‘new normal.’”

Social distancing and good hygiene

Avoid crowded places, keep two meters apart wherever possible and wear a mask in public to protect yourself and those around you. Travelers are urged to carry alcohol sanitizer wipes and gel to clean or disinfect surfaces that they may come into contact with, such as transportation arm rests and tables.

It may sound like a no-brainer, but do wash your hands with soap and water often and for at least 20 seconds. Also, avoid touching your face with unwashed hands and be sure to cough or sneeze toward your bent elbow. Perform daily personal health checks, such as taking your temperature every morning and evening with a personal thermometer.

Plan in advance

Be sure to research a list of local doctor offices or travel clinics at your destination, and any precautions they have in place for securing an appointment if you start to feel unwell. If severe symptoms appear, such as shortness of breath or high fever, isolate yourself, avoid public transport and seek advice from the Japan National Tourism Organization’s COVID-19 consultation hotline at 050-3816-2787 (available in English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese).

New hospitality

Many hospitality companies have completely changed the way they operate during this new wave of safe travel.

According to Hana Tsukamoto, founder of luxury guesthouse company Maana Homes in Kyoto, “With the drastic drop in foreign tourism numbers, we had to change tact, but we’ve managed to sustain a decent level of occupancy offering domestic tourists the opportunity to explore what’s on their doorstep. Our homes are secluded, boutique spaces for travel with thorough hygiene systems in place to keep guests safe, meaning they’re perfect for this era of socially distant staycations. Our properties accommodate private groups in their own isolated space for a more considered approach to travel. We’ve listened to our guests’ concerns and have also started working with a local restaurant to provide a dinner delivery service, too, so that guests can relax in the knowledge that they can avoid crowds if needed.”

Meanwhile, the recently opened Four Seasons Hotels’ new Otemachi property has the added benefits of its Lead With Care program, a consulting agreement with Johns Hopkins Medicine, to inform the hotel’s health and safety decisions during the pandemic. Measures include stringent behind-the-scenes standards enforced by an onsite hygiene officer, ensuring employees have a well-informed understanding of the disease and its transmission to provide guidance on appropriate social distancing, personal protective equipment and contactless interactions via the Four Seasons app. Regional Vice President and General Manager Andrew de Brito says, “ In this new environment, the Four Seasons experience may look a bit different, but it feels exactly the same – warm, personalized and memorable.”

It is easy to forget that Japan has myriad options for domestic travel, many of which rival overseas destinations. The Go To Travel campaign is a step toward celebrating local tourism; by doing so in accordance with expert health and safety guidelines, you can embark on your next trip with confidence and safety.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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