The government implemented tougher border control measures Monday for travelers from China and South Korea, effectively banning tourists from the two countries through the end of this month, as it fights to prevent a surge in coronavirus infections.
Nearly 3 million visas already issued to South Korean and Chinese nationals, including residents of Hong Kong and Macao, were invalidated.
The step does not invalidate the periods of stay for people from the two countries who are already in Japan.
All arrivals from the territories, including Japanese and other foreign nationals, will be asked to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine on a voluntary basis.
The travel restrictions came as Japan steps up efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, with less than five months to go to the Tokyo Olympics. They will likely deal a blow to the economy as visitors from China and South Korea account for about half of all tourists to Japan.
South Korea, angered by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s sudden announcement of the travel curbs late last week, began taking reciprocal measures Monday against Japan as ties between the two countries, already frayed over wartime issues, came under new pressure.
People entering Japan from China and South Korea will be asked to travel to and stay at designated facilities, such as hotels, at their own expense where they will be quarantined for 14 days. Officials will request that they use private cars and avoid public transportation. Those who don’t have a home of their own will be asked to secure accommodations in advance.
The voluntary self-quarantine will also apply to travelers who enter Japan aboard flights from other countries that connect in China or South Korea.
While Chinese and South Korean visitors already in Japan will not have their periods of stay terminated, if they leave the country they will not be able to re-enter using the invalidated visas while the current controls are in force.
A visa waiver program covering 90-day short stays by tourists from South Korea, Hong Kong and Macao has also been suspended, while airlines will limit flights from China and South Korea to two airports — Narita and Kansai International Airport.
Of the roughly 3 million visas invalidated, about 2.8 million were held by Chinese nationals and about 17,000 by South Koreans, according to the Foreign Ministry.
Few flights arrived Monday from Chinese and South Korean airports.
Two university students who landed at Kansai after a trip to South Korea said their flight only had three passengers.
“I was worried about whether we would be able to enter (Japan),” said Wakaba Suganami, 19. “I wouldn’t have thought the situation would become as serious as it has.”
Opposition party lawmakers who slammed Abe for what they called a relaxed initial reaction to the spread of COVID-19 as well as some health experts have questioned the effectiveness of voluntary quarantine measures.
The virus, first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, has spread globally with over 100,000 infections confirmed so far. China has more than 80,000 reported cases — by far the largest in the world — while South Korea has 7,000.
On Monday Abe told a Diet session the government is weighing the need to impose travel restrictions on visitors from Italy, since that country has also seen high numbers of coronavirus infections.
“We have been discussing whether to include Italy,” Abe said. “We will not hesitate to do so if the need arises.”
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed a decree Sunday putting the Lombardy region, which includes Milan and 14 other provinces, under lock down as the nation’s total cases surpassed 7,300.
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