In hopes of propping up the economy, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Cabinet minister in charge of the country’s response to the novel coronavirus, announced Friday that Tokyo would become eligible for the controversial Go To Travel campaign, a ¥1.35 trillion government plan to promote domestic tourism, on Oct. 1.
While professional baseball and soccer matches will continue to be capped at 50 percent capacity, the central government will no longer limit attendance to 5,000 spectators from Sep. 19, the first day of a four-day holiday. The government’s novel coronavirus subcommittee is expected to endorse the decision later Friday.
“We’ve reached a point where we can slowly ease on the brakes and cautiously lift restrictions on dining and travel as we try to revive the economy,” Nishimura said during a news conference Friday evening. “That is, of course, under the pretense that safety measures will be maintained for the time being.”
The Go To Travel campaign kicked off in late July without Tokyo despite heavy criticism that subsidizing travel during an ongoing pandemic would help further spread the virus in the country.
Under the program, anyone looking to travel within Japan is eligible for a 50 percent discount on expenses via a combination of government-issued coupons.
Tokyo was abruptly jettisoned from the plan a week before it kicked off following a sudden spike in COVID-19 infections in the capital. On July 22, the day the campaign began, it reported 238 new cases. On Friday, the city reported 187.
Opponents questioned the purpose and economic viability of a nationwide travel campaign lacking the participation of the capital’s 13.9 million residents, who constitute 11 percent of the nation’s entire population.
On the other hand, critics feared including Tokyo in the program could trigger an outflow of travelers from the capital, and vice versa, that could help the virus spread to rural parts of the country.
Travel reservations made in August across 32 prefectures were higher than previous years, according to figures published earlier this month by the Japan Association of Travel Agents.
Compared with last year, reservations were 187 percent higher in Wakayama Prefecture, 164 percent in Nara Prefecture and nearly 150 percent higher in Tokushima Prefecture, according to JATA.
While the findings suggest a significant number of people have been looking to take advantage of the Go To Travel campaign, it’s likely that tourism will remain in a lull since the number of foreign tourists entering the country is close to zero.
Since the campaign is already underway, adding Tokyo could be “technically difficult and cause confusion on the ground,” tourism minister Kazuyoshi Akaba said Friday. Those who have already made plans to travel to and from Tokyo after October will need to cancel those reservations to be eligible for the campaign.
As the central government moves forward with plans to resuscitate the economy by way of its restaurant and travel industries, the capital is beginning to relax virus countermeasures targeting eateries and tourists.
The announcement to include Tokyo in the troubled campaign next month came a day after the Tokyo Metropolitan Government lowered its virus alert status from level four — the highest — to level three, and Gov. Yuriko Koike announced that restrictive measures on food establishments and travel outside of the city would be lifted.
“Tokyo’s inclusion will benefit struggling businesses and those looking to travel after long periods of isolation and social distancing,” Koike said during a news conference Friday.
Effective midnight Tuesday, bars, restaurants and other food establishments in Tokyo’s central 23 wards that had been asked in early August to close at 10 p.m. will no longer face censure for resuming normal business hours.
Nishimura announced earlier this month that a Go To Eat campaign — a government program aimed at reviving the restaurant industry — will begin mid-September.
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