Economic survival continues to supersede public health in Japan as officials selectively suspend and restrict, but ultimately proceed with, the Go To Travel campaign even as the novel coronavirus continues to spread throughout the country.
The central government is planning to extend the end of its travel subsidy campaign — a ¥1.35 trillion program meant to resuscitate the battered tourism industry through discounted domestic trips — from January to early June, media reports said Thursday.
The plan will be included in a stimulus package set to be announced early this month, reports said, and Diet members in the ruling bloc are also looking to reduce the maximum discount available to travelers in order to prolong the campaign period.
The reports came a day after Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike on Wednesday evening urged residents 65 and older, as well as those with pre-existing medical conditions, to refrain from traveling until mid-December.
Tokyo reported 533 cases on Thursday, bringing the capital’s total past 42,300 infections.
While the novel coronavirus has caused scores of casualties, so too has the lengthy economic downturn caused by the ongoing pandemic.
In a report published in October, the International Monetary Fund predicted that Japan’s economy would contract in 2020 by 5.3%, with the world facing a “long, uneven and uncertain” recovery from the global economic slump.
While the country’s economy did show signs of recovery in the second half of the year, there is no end in sight to the ongoing wave of infections.
The Go To Travel campaign kicked off in late July despite fear and criticism over the dangers of subsidizing domestic travel during a pandemic. Tokyo was initially excluded as it was in the throes of a surge in new infections, but the capital joined the program in early October after the virus appeared to subside, albeit only for a few weeks.
The campaign, along with a parallel program meant to support the food industry, was meant to provide a lifeline to rural areas where local businesses are heavily dependent on inbound tourism. However, until the country’s border restrictions are lifted and foreign tourists feel that it is safe to travel again, critics say those measures will only serve as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.
After what some are referring to as a third wave began in late October, officials were forced to peel back economic measures where the outbreak was deemed most severe.
In November, discounts for inbound and outbound travel from Sapporo and Osaka were suspended until mid-December in an attempt to protect hospitals in the country’s hardest-hit areas from becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said at the time that Go To Travel reservations for trips to and from areas suspended from the campaign would be temporarily halted for three weeks, and existing reservations would be canceled and fees reimbursed by the central government.
He also said in late November that the government will secure ¥50 billion to provide financial support if and when governors call on local businesses to reduce or suspend operations.
Around the same time, Koike announced that the Go To Eat campaign and a localized travel program for residents in the capital would also be suspended for three weeks.
Officials are restricting economic activity incrementally as new cases continue to emerge nationwide.
Food establishments that serve alcohol were asked to close early until mid-December in parts of Tokyo, Osaka, Hokkaido, Aichi, Chiba and Saitama prefectures.
The Chiba Prefectural Government asked restaurants in areas bordering Tokyo not to serve alcohol past 10 p.m. and urged residents to refrain from visiting Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo and Aichi prefectures. The Hyogo Prefectural Government urged residents to avoid Tokyo and Osaka while officials in Ibaraki Prefecture asked residents to refrain from traveling to active virus hot spots.
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