The Go To Travel campaign launched a month ago has failed to spur substantial demand for trips amid a coronavirus surge that is making people hesitant about using the government subsidies.
The government launched the program with a hefty budget of ¥1.35 trillion to support a vital industry crippled by the pandemic but ended up excluding Tokyo as an eligible destination and participant at the last minute, creating chaos.
"Travel bookings for July-September are about 20 to 30 percent of the year-before levels," an official at a major travel agency said.
During Bon, traffic on domestic flights plummeted 65 percent year on year while shinkansen and other trains run by six firms in the Japan Railways Group saw ridership plummet 76 percent during the usually busy mid-August holidays.
In addition, reservations for the upcoming four-day weekend from Sept. 19 to 22 "have so far been sluggish," an official at another major travel agency said.
At Tsukioka Onsen, a hot spring resort in Niigata Prefecture, the daily customer count this month is averaging around 60 percent of the previous year's levels.
"The travel promotion campaign has certain effects, but many people are stopping short of making trips due to the risk of infection from the virus," an official of the association of hotels at the spa said.
Traffic outside Bon is also low at Kusatsu Onsen, a popular hot spring in Gunma Prefecture close to the Tokyo metropolitan area. "We are not having many customers from Tokyo," an official of a hotel at the resort said.
One reason behind the weak turnout is the conflicting policies the central and prefectural governments took toward the resurgence of COVID-19. While the central government did not ask people to refrain from taking trips, including during Bon, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government called for restraint. The governments of Aichi and Okinawa prefectures meanwhile felt the need to issue emergency declarations to address the surge in cases.
The Miyazaki Prefectural Government has called on residents to refrain from traveling to other prefectures during the campaign as much as possible.
Just before the subsidy program was launched on July 22, the central government decided to exclude travel to and from Tokyo due to a spike in coronavirus cases in the capital, adding to the confusion.
In addition, complex procedures related to the campaign have seen only about 17,000 of the nation's roughly 35,000 eligible lodging operators register for it.
The pandemic remains a source of concern. According to the Japan Tourism Agency, there have been 10 cases in which infected people used accommodations registered for the program. This has fueled concerns that Go To Travel will help spread the virus.
The government plans to start registering stores where shopping coupons for the campaign can be used in early September. But when to start distributing them will be decided based on the infection situation.
Like many countries, Japan is trying to achieve an economic recovery backed by travel demand and contain the virus at the same time. But achieving both goals appears difficult, with opponents clashing on both sides.
"The launch of the travel campaign was premature, so it should be canceled immediately," Takahide Kiuchi, executive economist at Nomura Research Institute Ltd., said.
Iwate Gov. Takuya Tasso on Friday said the government's decision to launch the campaign in July was too early and declared Go To Travel "a failure."
The government, however, remains eager to continue the program, which is strongly backed by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, its top spokesman.
"Regional tourism companies were on the verge of death. We are supporting businesses that are taking thorough measures to prevent infection with the coronavirus," Suga said in televised comments Tuesday, repeating that Go To Travel must stay in place.
The government also plans to reinstate Tokyo's eligibility for the program but did not say when it would do so.
Still, an expert in infectious diseases cautioned that the nation is "in the very midst of a second wave of infections."
The medical system is coming under increasing pressure from a rise in severely ill coronavirus patients. If the government puts more emphasis on reviving the economy, infections could rise further, analysts said.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.
Your news needs your support
Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.