• Kyodo, Jiji

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The tourism ministry said Tuesday it will expand compensation for travel businesses to further help them weather the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, following the government’s abrupt decision to suspend a domestic travel subsidy program nationwide amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

The move reflects the travel industry’s concerns that the measure to halt the Go To Travel campaign for promoting domestic tourism from Dec. 28 to Jan. 11 will impact businesses, already reeling from the pandemic and hoping to use this time of the year to recover sales.

Customers who have already made bookings for rooms and travel packages during the subjected period can call them off for free before Dec. 24., the ministry said.

The government will now pay 50% of travel charges per canceled reservation, up from 35%, taking into account how some businesses have already increased the number of staff to deal with the anticipated numbers during the holiday season.

Travel operators and hotels and other accommodations have been compensated by the government for 35% of travel expenses when customers cancel their bookings in compliance with the government’s previous halts in areas with a high number of infections.

“I will make every effort to curb further infections over the year-end and New Year holiday,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was quoted as saying at a meeting of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Tuesday.

The period is usually one of Japan’s busiest times, with tourist spots frequented by holidaymakers and many people returning home.

The coronavirus “has hit the busy season again,” an official at a major travel agency said. “I wonder how much reservations will go down.” The virus also hit the industry hard during the summer holiday season in August, another high-demand period.

According to a survey conducted last month by major Japanese travel agency JTB Corp., as many as 85% of respondents said they do not intend to travel during the upcoming year-end and New Year holiday period, including trips to their hometowns to visit family. The halt of the Go To Travel program is certain to accelerate the trend.

An official working in the airline industry said the suspension “will no doubt affect demand for trips to hometowns” during the year-end and New Year period.

“I know it can’t be helped, considering the current coronavirus situation, but it hurts,” the official said.

In Tokyo and Nagoya, where the Go To Travel suspension will take effect ahead of the nationwide halt, those who had been counting on the upcoming busy season expressed disappointment.

“Since most of our customers are tourists, the suspension really hurts, to be honest,” said a 25-year-old deputy manager of a restaurant specializing in chicken dishes near Nagoya Castle.

The number of customers at the restaurant has already fallen this month due to the rise in coronavirus infections, and the suspension of the campaign is expected to make matters worse.

In Tokyo’s Asakusa district, a popular tourist destination, a 30-year-old executive of a Japanese-style inn said, “Reservations had been recovering but many are likely to be canceled.”

“It’s extremely tough not being able to count on the year-end and New Year period,” the executive said.

While restaurants in Tokyo are being asked to shorten their operating hours, a restaurant owner in Asakusa, 50, said, “We cannot comply with the request during the year-end and New Year period.”

“If we don’t earn money then, we’ll have to go under,” the owner said.

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