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Tokyo on Thursday was included in the Go To Travel campaign, the government-subsidized discounts program to boost domestic tourism, raising concerns about the risk of spreading coronavirus infections to other prefectures.

Local governments were expressing a mixture of hope and unease about the inclusion of Tokyo’s 13.9 million residents in the ¥1.35 trillion campaign, which began in late July for all other prefectures. While Tokyo is a major source of domestic tourism for many areas, it is also the source of about 30 percent of Japan’s nearly 84,000 coronavirus cases as of Thursday.

Tokyo was initially excluded by the government from the July start of the campaign due to concerns that a large influx of Tokyo visitors elsewhere and vice versa could risk increased infections in places outside the capital with limited medical facilities.

But the government decided to let Tokyo residents participate from Thursday in hopes of giving a boost to the economy, while cautioning the public to maintain social distancing and other measures to prevent COVID-19 infections.

“Looking at Japan’s travel market, travel from Tokyo to elsewhere accounts for 20 percent of it, while 10 percent of all domestic travel is to Tokyo. By adding Tokyo to the campaign, we hope for an overall economic effect, including for other areas,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters Thursday morning.

Surrounding prefectures, which are expected to welcome large numbers of Tokyo visitors, expressed both hope of increased tourism and concerns about preventing a rise in infections. In a joint message to Tokyo residents, the governors of Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa and Yamanashi called on anyone in Tokyo who feels ill not to travel and to observe all social distancing practices.

The governors also called on Tokyo residents to go along with local virus countermeasures. In Nasushiobara, Tochigi Prefecture, this will mean agreeing to pay more hot spring tax to stay at local hotels and traditional inns offering hot springs.

A sign at a travel agency advertises discounts for trips to and from Tokyo in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Wednesday. | KYODO
A sign at a travel agency advertises discounts for trips to and from Tokyo in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Wednesday. | KYODO

Last month, in a nationwide first and in preparation for the addition of the Tokyo market to the Go To Travel campaign, the Nasushiobara Municipal Assembly overwhelmingly passed an ordinance raising the tax on local hot spring resorts.

Costs will rise between ¥50 and ¥200, depending on the facility. The money will be used to pay for PCR tests for about 600 people working at resort facilities, in a city with a population of just over 116,000.

“By having the ordinance in place, we can raise our brand awareness,” Mayor Michitaro Watanabe said.

Elsewhere, local leaders hope that their prefectures will receive more Tokyo tourists, especially over the coming weeks, as the autumn leaves in many parts of the country start to turn, becoming an attraction in themselves.

“We’ve entered the stage where the aim is to avoid serious cases and death due to the coronavirus while engaging in tourism, so we hope for (good) results,” said Nara Gov. Shogo Arai.

Passengers board a shinkansen at Tokyo Station on Thursday. | KYODO
Passengers board a shinkansen at Tokyo Station on Thursday. | KYODO

Hajime Takahashi, an official with the Nara City Tourism Bureau, said that there was no indication of an overwhelming number of reservations from Tokyo customers yet, but that the inclusion of Tokyoites could trigger a revival of visitors from there.

“Tokyo is really a big market. That is the same with or without COVID-19. Not only Nara, but all the tourist destinations in Japan have been longing for them to come back. Otherwise, Japan’s tourism industry will be devastated,” Takahashi said.

But still, Nara residents who don’t have livelihoods linked to tourism — the majority — “may have serious concerns about the removal of restrictions for Tokyo, where the pandemic still continues,” he said.

In Osaka, major international hotel chains say they are aware of concerns about the spread of infections in Tokyo. Luxury hotels, such as the Intercontinental Osaka and the Hilton Osaka, have implemented thorough cleaning, sanitary and social distancing measures.

“We have been receiving many inquiries from Tokyo by phone. We are not sure that this will be reflected in actual reservations, but we have had many questions and inquiries,” says Naoko Nishida, a spokeswoman for the Intercontinental Osaka.

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