Sapporo and Osaka will be temporarily removed as destinations from the Go To Travel campaign — the government’s ongoing domestic travel promotion program — amid a nationwide surge in new COVID-19 infections, the central government announced Tuesday.

Effective immediately and for three weeks, new reservations in the two cities will not be accepted, officials said. Reservations made before the announcement will be canceled and reimbursed, and the impact on local businesses compensated, by the central government.

“This will have a large impact on travelers and local businesses alike,” said tourism minister Kazuyoshi Akaba. “It was a bitter decision to make.”

The Go To Travel campaign is aimed at bolstering the tourism industry by subsidizing domestic travel. Residents of Sapporo and Osaka looking to travel elsewhere will continue to have access to the discounts it offers.

Selective suspension of the campaign is intended to buffer hard-hit areas where the health care system is at risk of being overwhelmed, said Yasutoshi Nishimura, the cabinet minister in charge of the country’s national response to the novel coronavirus.

Japan reported more than 2,000 new cases daily for five consecutive days leading up to Sunday. The country’s cumulative COVID-19 death toll also surpassed 2,000 the same day.

Kazuyoshi Akaba, tourism minister, speaks to the press Tuesday. | KYODO
Kazuyoshi Akaba, tourism minister, speaks to the press Tuesday. | KYODO

New cases exceeded 300 for the first time Friday in Hokkaido, which was the first prefecture to see an uptick in new cases late last month.

The move to temporarily eject the two cities from Go To Travel comes just days after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga abruptly announced on Saturday that areas hit hardest by the nationwide wave of new infections would be removed from the campaign pending consultation with municipal governors.

During a news conference last week, Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki expressed doubt that “eating quietly at a hotel or soaking in a hot spring, where virus measures are in effect, are triggering new infections.”

But Suzuki walked back his statements Saturday after the central government also reversed its position, announcing it would suspend the campaign in areas where new cases were rising most quickly.

At least 176 cases have been identified among some 40 million people who used discounts afforded by the campaign since it began in July, Suga said.

In a set of draft proposals submitted Monday, the National Governors Association urged the central government to consider a more flexible approach to the travel campaign in which participating regions could be removed according to the state of the outbreak in that region.

Tokushima Gov. Kamon Iizumi (upper right), head of the National Governors' Association, addresses a videoconference with governors Monday. | KYODO
Tokushima Gov. Kamon Iizumi (upper right), head of the National Governors’ Association, addresses a videoconference with governors Monday. | KYODO

“Japan is in the midst of what appears to be a third wave of the virus,” said Kamon Iizumi, NGA President and governor of Tokushima Prefecture. “The central government needs to make clear to the public what measures will be taken in response.”

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government reported 186 new cases on Tuesday, bringing the city’s total to more than 38,000 infections and 479 deaths. Tokyo saw a record-breaking 539 new cases on Saturday following 522 on Friday and 534 on Thursday.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike met with Nishimura and Suga on Tuesday, and the trio, she said, were able to bring each other up to speed on the virus situation in Tokyo. She did not, however, say anything about the capital being removed from the Go To Travel campaign.

“Certain measures need to be taken under these circumstances and information coming from the central government needed to be clarified,” Koike told reporters at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. “Moving forward, the capital will work together with the central government to take these measures.”

When the program began, Tokyo was excluded as it was still in the throes of a peak in new infections. After officials deemed it safe, the capital and it’s 13.9 million residents joined the program on Oct. 1.

By the end of that month, beginning in Hokkaido and soon seen in urban concentrations throughout the country, a nationwide surge quickly ascended to what experts say is the third and largest wave of COVID-19 in Japan.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike attends a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo on Tuesday. | REUTERS
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike attends a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo on Tuesday. | REUTERS

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