The Japan Fair Trade Commission on Thursday issued cease-and-desist orders to JTB and three other travel agencies in a bid-rigging case over a municipal project to transport COVID-19 patients.

It is the first time the antitrust watchdog has issued such an order over a project related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The other three companies found to have violated the antimonopoly law are Tobu Top Tours, Nippon Travel Agency Tohoku and Meitetsu World Travel.

The bid-rigging case also involved Kinki Nippon Tourist, but the company escaped punishment because it spontaneously reported the violation before the watchdog launched on-site inspections.

According to the watchdog and other sources, the project to transport COVID-19 patients from their homes to accommodation facilities was ordered by the city of Aomori. The five companies colluded to decide in advance which of them would win five related tenders between April 2022 and March 2023, while agreeing that the winner would outsource some operations to the others.

Kinki Nippon Tourist won all the tenders for a total of about ¥32 million. Profits from the project were divided almost equally among the companies involved, with each receiving several million yen.

The bid-rigging was apparently aimed at securing profits at a time when travel demand was plummeting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The antitrust watchdog also urged the Aomori city government to take necessary measures to prevent similar cases, and the Japan Association of Travel Agents to instruct its member companies to comply with the law.