Japan should look to reinstate its domestic travel incentive program as soon as March to shore up the tourist industry, a senior ruling party official said, even after a study last month indicated the campaign may have spread the coronavirus.
Hiroshige Seko, Upper House secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party, said in an interview with Bloomberg News that the Go To Travel program should be brought back after the emergency declaration is lifted. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is set to extend the emergency by a month to March 7.
"There will be demand for travel during the spring school holidays in March, so we should think of doing a Go To campaign to properly support the tourism industry,” Seko said Monday at his offices in the Diet. While some say the campaign helped spread the pathogen, others say tourists tend not to mingle much with local people and therefore don’t present much of a risk, he said.
The travel subsidies, started in July and halted at the end of last year, were designed as a lifeline for tourist businesses hard-hit by the absence of foreign visitors during the pandemic. The program that gave subsidies for domestic travel has been criticized as being a factor in a record surge of cases that peaked about a month ago.
A study by researchers at Kyoto University published in January found a sharp increase in travel-associated coronavirus cases after the subsidy program was introduced in July.
While the Go To program was widely used, most respondents to media surveys said Suga should have suspended it sooner, in an example of the mismatch between his policies and voters’ views. In an interview in August, just before he became prime minister, Suga said hotels and inns must be kept going to help meet the government target of attracting 60 million tourists a year by 2030.
Most respondents to media polls say they disapprove of Suga’s handling of the pandemic, and his Cabinet’s support rating tumbled to 33% in an Asahi newspaper survey carried out Jan. 23-24, from 65% when he took office in September.
While Japan’s infection rates are low by comparison with other Group of Seven countries, cases reached a daily high of nearly 8,000 on Jan. 8. Almost 80% of respondents to a Nikkei newspaper poll published on Monday said that Suga’s decision to declare the emergency last month came too late and about 90% said it should be extended.
Asked about further spending to support the virus-hit economy, expected to slide back into contraction in the current quarter, Seko said funds from a third extra budget that has just been passed, and reserves from the initial annual budget would be sufficient for the time being.
"If it turns out that from April it’s not enough, I don’t think we’ll hesitate to add more economic measures and an extra budget,” Seko said.
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