National

Japan urges urbanites to tour country, sparking fear of virus's spread in countryside

by Sophie Jackman and Marika Katanuma

Bloomberg

A central government campaign to spur domestic tourism has drawn both enthusiasm and ire, with some social media users telling urbanites to stay away from rural areas after COVID-19 cases hit a record high in Tokyo.

The government aims to subsidize as much as half of eligible domestic travel costs through discounts and coupons during its Go To Travel campaign starting July 22 ahead of a four-day weekend. Tourism minister Kazuyoshi Akaba announced Friday that the campaign would be moved forward from August, adding that the government is aware that “despite the impact of the coronavirus crisis, people have passionate expectations for travel.”

Despite the government’s push, “please don’t come here” was a common theme in tweets from those outside the capital. Others questioned whether official assurances that the health system still has room to handle new cases would still apply if infections spread outside major cities.

The spread of the pandemic differs across the 47 prefectures. Tokyo confirmed 243 new virus cases on Friday, a fresh daily record, before ebbing to 206 new cases on Saturday. Meanwhile, Okinawa Prefecture had no new cases for 69 days until two were found on Wednesday. Tohoku’s Iwate Prefecture, offering the prospect of cooler summer weather than the capital, has had no confirmed cases at all.

“I know it’s painful if we don’t get the economy moving, but my prefecture’s been at zero this whole time,” tweeted a user on Friday. “Rethink the Go To campaign.”

The campaign is the tourism component of a broader initiative to aid local economies sapped by the pandemic’s effects. Japan had targeted 40 million visitor arrivals in 2020, before border controls prompted by the virus saw the country’s international tourism boom of the past several years abruptly vanish. Just 1,700 foreign visitors arrived in May, down 99.9 percent year-on-year for the second month running.

East Japan Railway Co. will offer half-price tickets on a range of high-speed services linking Tokyo with destinations as far-flung as Hokkaido from Aug. 20.

The government is keeping plans to reopen the economy despite a recent surge in coronavirus cases, attributing the latest surge to increased testing, particularly among people connected with nightclubs. | REUTERS
The government is keeping plans to reopen the economy despite a recent surge in coronavirus cases, attributing the latest surge to increased testing, particularly among people connected with nightclubs. | REUTERS

While kicking off cheaper travel during a holiday period sounds like an effective economic tonic, “it shouldn’t be applied to trips to and from areas where community spread is feared at the moment,” Izuru Makihara, a professor of Japanese politics and public administration at the University of Tokyo, said by email. “It would be best to flexibly adjust the applicable areas and dates in response to local infection conditions.”

Kentaro Iwata, a professor of infectious diseases at Kobe University, tweeted Friday that Tokyo has fully entered the second wave of the pandemic. Responding to the Go To Travel launch date, he suggested the same “peer pressure” that has driven Japanese residents to voluntarily take measures against the virus is now being used to justify safety in numbers.

The government is keeping plans to reopen the economy despite the recent spike in infections. Officials have stressed the situation has changed since April, when rising cases triggered a nationwide state of emergency that lasted into May. They attributed the latest surge to increased testing, particularly connected with nightclubs, and said most infection routes can be traced.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan’s coronavirus response, said at a news conference on Saturday that Japan must balance economic and social activity as it deals with the pandemic.

“The most important thing is for each and every individual and business to take thorough steps to prevent the spread of infection,” he said.

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