The Go To Travel campaign for reviving the pandemic-ravaged tourism industry has been thrown into disarray, with policymakers unable to set details on the contentious subsidy program just days before launch.
On Friday, tourism minister Kazuyoshi Akaba urged young people and older people in large group tours not to use the ¥1.35 trillion ($12.59 billion) subsidy campaign, saying they might spread the novel coronavirus or catch it. He said specific age groups and tour sizes were under consideration for the advisory as well.
But an official at the Japan Tourism Agency said later in the day it would ultimately leave such matters to the discretion of travel agencies as "it would be difficult to draw a line due to the diverse nature of travel."
The JTA is affiliated with the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, which Akaba heads. The Go To Travel campaign is scheduled to kick off on Wednesday.
On Thursday, the government surprised the public by revising the travel initiative to exclude Tokyo after the capital reported a record number of coronavirus cases.
The abrupt decision prompted cancellations by both residents and prospective visitors to Tokyo. Akaba said the government had no plan to reimburse any cancellation fees incurred.
The minister's stance on reimbursement is facing opposition from a senior member of the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition.
Noritoshi Ishida, Komeito's policy chief, called on the government to "consider (compensating for) cancellation fees" following Tokyo's exclusion from the campaign. The party is the LDP's junior partner in the coalition.
Under the massive tourism push, the campaign will eventually subsidize up to half of travelers' expenses, including accommodation and transport, with the government initially providing discounts worth 35 percent of the total.
The remaining 15 percent will be covered by coupons issued after September for food, shopping and other travel activities offered at destinations, according to the tourism ministry.
The government decided to exclude trips to and from Tokyo from the program amid concern about a resurgence in coronavirus infections. The move came amid rising infections linked to young people, nightlife districts and asymptomatic carriers.
Akaba said it was a "gut-wrenching" decision to remove Tokyo but that the capital has become "a center of the viral spread."
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also offered an apology over the decision, saying Tokyo would be reinstated when infections are less of a threat.
Despite the decision, concerns remain that travelers will stay in hotels outside the capital but visit sightseeing spots and restaurants within it, undermining the measure.
Though the situation with refunds remains in flux, people who have already booked and paid for tours starting after July 22 will be partially reimbursed later. Those who purchase tours from now on will immediately get a discount at their travel agencies at the time of purchase, according to a tourism agency document.
Akaba also said the government will oblige hotels and inns in the other 46 prefectures to take anti-virus measures, such as checking guests' temperatures and confirming their eligibility for the campaign.
The subsidy plan was initially slated to begin in August before the Bon holidays, when many city-dwellers return to their hometowns. But it was moved forward in time for a four-day weekend starting Thursday.
Local leaders had voiced concern about the initiative, fearing it could bring the virus to their regions from the metropolis. Many praised the government's decision to exclude trips to and from Tokyo.
Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura, a vocal opponent of starting the campaign uniformly nationwide, said, "I think it is reasonable for the campaign to start with the exclusion of Tokyo." He added that his prefecture could also be excluded if the situation with the virus worsens.
Okayama Gov. Ryuta Ibaragi, however, wondered if excluding Tokyo alone was sufficient, saying its neighbors in the Kanto region, including Kanagawa, should be excluded as well.
Tokyo, which reported 290 infections on Saturday, has raised its four-step alert level to the highest amid a spike in infections.
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