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The controversial Go To Travel campaign kicked off Wednesday amid growing concerns about whether it will lead to increased coronavirus infections and mounting criticism over the government’s handling of its rollout.

The discount travel campaign began as Tokyo’s governor asked residents to refrain from unnecessary travel over a long weekend beginning Thursday. Questions were growing as to how and why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government went ahead with the campaign despite the recent uptick in coronavirus cases and local leaders’ calls to rethink the plan.

The ¥1.35 trillion campaign was originally designed to promote domestic travel by anyone to any destination they wished with an up to a 50 percent discount via deals and vouchers issued from September. But after a spike in coronavirus cases in Tokyo, the government announced a sudden decision to exclude travel to and from the capital late last week.

Tokyo on Wednesday recorded 238 new COVID-19 infections, taking the overall total to more than 10,000. The disease has also left 327 people dead in the capital — almost a third of the nationwide total.

The surge in cases led Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike to call on residents of the capital to refrain from unnecessary travel over the four-day holiday weekend.

“The number of serious cases is increasing,” Koike told reporters Tuesday evening. “It’s important that those with a high risk of becoming seriously ill, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing medical issues, stay inside.”

For the rest of the nation, however, the central government continues to encourage people to go out and about, taking necessary social distancing and safety precautions. Adhering to social distancing rules already in place in restaurants and public facilities is a requirement for hotels, traditional inns and other businesses participating in the Go To Travel campaign.

Travelers line up at Chubu Centrair International Airport on Wednesday. | KYODO
Travelers line up at Chubu Centrair International Airport on Wednesday. | KYODO

“With everyone’s cooperation, we want to reopen activities. That policy has not changed. At the same time, we will make thorough efforts to prevent the spread of infections and serious cases,” Abe told reporters Wednesday morning.

“The Go To campaign is part of the government’s effort at a staged reopening of the economy. When people check in to a facility, they’ll get their temperature checked and they’ll be expected to practice social distancing at mealtimes,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday.

But such reassurances have failed to erase public skepticism.

An Asahi Shimbun poll taken last weekend showed that 74 percent of respondents were opposed to the program, while a Kyodo News survey over the same period found that 62.7 percent of respondents said the whole program should be postponed.

Outside Tokyo, reaction to the capital’s exclusion from the Go To Travel campaign has been mixed. Among those expressing support for the decision were the governors of Shimane and Wakayama prefectures.

“Excluding Tokyo from the campaign is a reasonable judgment,” Wakayama Gov. Yoshinobu Nisaka said.

However, some prefectures that have come to rely greatly on travelers from Tokyo in recent years were less enthusiastic. Nara Prefecture, as well as the city of the same name, have benefited from both the international tourism boom and domestic tours, especially school excursions from the Kanto region.

“From Nara’s view, it wasn’t necessary to exclude Tokyo,” Gov. Shogo Arai said. “We’ve entered the stage of coexistence with the coronavirus, which means dealing with infections while carrying out economic activities.”

Other governors, including those of Hokkaido and Osaka, Kyoto, and Hyogo prefectures, have called for inter-regional or inter-prefectural discount travel campaigns in the hopes of better containing the spread of the virus. Hyogo has even set up its own tourism campaign that provides discount incentives for travel within the prefecture and to neighboring prefectures.

“There’s a difference between people who go to Tokyo and the Kabukicho area, where there are a lot of coronavirus cases, and people who want to take a domestic vacation,” said Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido said of the virus-hit entertainment district in the capital’s Shinjuku Ward.

A traveler walks toward a ticket gate for bullet trains at Shin-Yokohama Station in Yokohama on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI
A traveler walks toward a ticket gate for bullet trains at Shin-Yokohama Station in Yokohama on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura has also called for a rethink of the Go To push, even as he, along with Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui, indicated Tokyoites shouldn’t be excluded from taking advantage of a discount travel campaign.

“Just moving around isn’t that great a risk,” Yoshimura said. “What’s important is what you do at the place you go to.”

The chaos and last-minute changes to the campaign have left tourism agencies confused about what, exactly, they can offer.

Opposition parties have stepped up their calls for Abe to account for the decision to ultimately go through with the campaign despite the concerns. Media reports Tuesday and Wednesday morning suggested that Suga and powerful LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai had heavily influenced the prime minister’s decision.

Jun Azumi, the Diet affairs chief for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, had strong words Wednesday for the prime minister in the event the campaign triggered a rise in COVID-19 cases outside Tokyo.

“Everyone has been calling for a halt (to the campaign) but Abe and Suga have forced it through. If the number of infected rises in the regions … someone needs to take responsibility. I think the Cabinet should resign,” Azumi said.

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