Japan to launch unlimited expressway passes for foreign tourists

Kyodo, Staff Report

Passes allowing foreign tourists unlimited travel on major expressway networks across the country will go on sale in mid-October, in hopes of luring more visitors to regional areas, the transport ministry said Tuesday.

Holders of foreign passports will be able to buy a Japan Express Pass valid for seven consecutive days for ¥20,000 (about $180), and a 14-day pass for ¥34,000, at 275 rental car shops across the country from Oct. 13, according to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry.

Foreign nationals residing in Japan are also able to purchase the passes along with Japanese who live permanently outside Japan. But they must have a driver’s license valid for use in Japan.

The pass will allow travel on 10,000 kilometers of expressway networks, covering most parts of the country.

But expressways in Hokkaido, as well as those in metropolitan areas around Tokyo and Osaka, are excluded, the ministry said.

Hokkaido already has an expressway discount system, while making heavily-used expressways in Tokyo and Osaka free for foreign tourists could stir controversy.

Under the new plan, only drivers of standard-sized cars equipped with an electronic toll collection (ETC) device will be able to use the passes.

The ministry said it will coordinate steps with tourism-related entities nationwide to promote the campaign overseas.

Existing regional passes that allow foreign visitors unlimited expressway travel for up to 14 days in areas such as Hokkaido, Tohoku and Kyushu will continue to be available with prices ranging from ¥1,500 to ¥16,000, according to the ministry.

To deal with potential issues relating to foreign tourists driving on expressways, operators will work to bolster the information and language services, the ministry said.

Expressway operators will also boost efforts to expand free Wi-Fi areas, according to the ministry.

Last week, the Japan Tourism Agency said the estimated number of foreign visitors to Japan totaled 18,916,200 in the first eight months of this year — a record for the period.

The number continued to increase this month and topped 20 million as of Sept. 15, 45 days earlier than the previous year when foreign visitors reached that threshold at the fastest pace ever, the agency said.