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Japan to evacuate nationals from virus-hit Wuhan as tourism from China set to take a hit

AFP-JIJI, Bloomberg, Kyodo, JIJI, Staff Report

Japan will evacuate its nationals from China’s quarantined city of Wuhan, the epicenter of a deadly virus, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Sunday.

“We have decided to send back all (Japanese citizens in Wuhan) to Japan if they wish so, by every means, including a chartered flight,” Abe told reporters.

“We are coordinating with the Chinese government at various levels, and we will accelerate the process to realize a swift implementation” of the evacuation from Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China, Abe said.

As of Friday, there were about 710 Japanese citizens in Wuhan, a city of 11 million that has been on virtual lockdown, according to the Japanese government.

The ministry on Friday raised the infectious disease warning for Hubei Province, home to Wuhan, to the second-highest level of three, and is urging Japanese citizens not to travel there.

On Sunday, the health ministry confirmed Japan’s fourth case of infection, a man in his 40s from Wuhan visiting Japan for travel, adding that he is in stable condition.

The man arrived in Japan last Wednesday and developed a fever the following day. His infection was confirmed Sunday afternoon after he had visited a medical institution in Aichi Prefecture for treatment, according to the ministry.

On Saturday, the government announced a woman, a resident of Wuhan who is in her 30s and arrived in Japan on Jan. 18, was the third patient.

She was said to have had no symptoms at the time of arrival but developed a fever and started coughing on Tuesday night, according to the ministry. She visited a Tokyo hospital on Thursday and later tested positive for the virus. However, she has not been hospitalized, exhibiting minor symptoms, and is staying in her hotel room.

Some 2,000 people globally have been infected with the virus, which has also left more than 50 dead as of Sunday.

The news came the same day a ruling party official called on the government to take “full-scale border control measures” to prevent the spread of pneumonia caused by a new strain of coronavirus while paying close attention to updates from the World Health Organization.

In a TV program, Tomomi Inada, executive acting secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party, also urged the government to ensure the public is fully given necessary information on the new virus. The health ministry confirmed Japan’s third case of infection on Saturday.

Meanwhile, an internet business provider, GMO Internet Inc., was set to have about 4,000 of its employees in Japan work from home for around two weeks from Monday in the wake of the outbreak, the Nikkei business daily reported Sunday.

That would account for about 90 percent of its domestic workforce. The company will also have its workers in Shanghai, among others, return home, the report said. The company could not be immediately reached for comment.

On the tourism front, Japan was likely to take a significant hit after China’s government decided on Saturday to effectively ban overseas travel by its citizens starting Monday.

Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary-general of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said in the TV program that the move by Beijing is certain to have a considerable impact on Japan’s tourism industry and that the Japanese government should give consideration to the issue.Indeed, Japan’s goal of attracting 40 million visitors this year may already be in danger, following China’s decision to ban tour groups from going overseas. Chinese tourists made up almost a third of all arrivals to Japan in 2019, in a year that saw visitor growth impacted by a diplomatic spat with South Korea and a series of extreme weather events.

Once considered a tourism backwater with a reputation for expensive prices and a lack of foreign language skills, Japan’s inbound boom has been one of the few unambiguous economic success stories under Abe. Aided by government steps to relax visa approvals, visitors to Japan have surged almost fourfold to 31.9 million since 2012, buoying sectors from cosmetics to consumer goods and hospitality.

The government’s original goal of attracting 20 million visitors this year, when it will host the Olympic games, was met with five years to spare and swiftly doubled. That goal could now be in doubt, with the tour restriction the latest brake on growth. The ban on all outgoing overseas group tours was to take effect Monday. Domestic group tours were suspended on Friday.

The restrictions come in the middle of Lunar New Year, a peak time for travel by Chinese to Japan. Almost a third of visitors from China came as part of tour groups in 2018, the most recent year for which information was available from the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Chinese spending has been a highlight for Japan’s tourism industry in the last year. Visitors from China are the largest from any country, and their spending rose 15 percent to ¥1.77 trillion ($16.2 billion), making up almost 37 percent of the total.

That helped alleviate a plunge in arrivals from South Korea, which fell by more than 60 percent in December from the year earlier amid an escalating feud that’s spread from historical grievances to trade, investment and military ties.

A series of typhoons making landfall in metropolitan areas in 2018 and 2019 also hurt tourism and dented the country’s reputation for smooth public transport, after the storms wreaked havoc on airports and infrastructure in Tokyo and Osaka.

In Tokyo’s tourist hubs over the weekend, a visible impact from the virus wasn’t yet apparent. Overseas shoppers were seen buying face masks in bulk in the tourist hot spot of Asakusa, while at the Mitsukoshi department store in upscale Ginza, favored by Chinese visitors, fewer shoppers were seen buying cosmetics than usual.

The impact to Japan’s economy from the virus could exceed that of the SARS outbreak in 2003, due to the growth in inbound tourists in the interim, Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities economists Shuji Tonouchi and Lee Chiwoong wrote in a note before the tour group ban was announced.

“If the new China virus spreads further to reach a scale similar to 2003, we would expect the negative impact of a drop off in foreign tourists coming to Japan to exceed that seen in 2003,” they wrote. “In that case, we would anticipate an overall negative impact on Japan’s GDP, even after reflecting any boosts from fewer Japanese traveling abroad.”

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