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With nationwide COVID-19 cases continuing to hover at lows not seen since last year, the government is reinstating policies to boost the economy and that could mean a return of the Go To Travel campaign.

The government is currently ironing out details of how and when to resume the program, which was introduced last year but suspended after several months when infections shot up, with an eye toward a restart in January or February.

“We will continue to work on details and hope to resume it soon, as we have received many requests, especially from businesses in the tourism industry,” tourism minister Tetsuo Saito said Tuesday.

The Go To Travel campaign initially kicked off in July last year and was backed by a gargantuan ¥1.35 trillion budget to stimulate tourism demand that had been devastated by the pandemic. It covered half of a person’s travel expenses — a 35% discount on things like accommodation or transportation, and special coupons worth the remaining 15% that could be used at shops and restaurants during the travel period — if people purchased trip plans through designated travel agencies or made reservations at designated hotels.

Travelers were able to receive a maximum of ¥20,000 per stay — a ¥14,000 discount and ¥6,000 in vouchers. For a day trip, the maximum was ¥10,000 — ¥7,000 in discounts and ¥3,000 in vouchers.

But in December, the government suspended the program due to a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Now, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is contemplating a revised Go To Travel campaign offering lower discounts and more infection prevention measures.

Based on a draft of the new plan, the maximum discount per stay will be lowered to 30% of total costs, with the maximum discounted amount dropping to ¥10,000 from ¥14,000. For a day trip, the discount will be up to ¥3,000.

Vouchers would be capped at ¥3,000 for weekdays and ¥1,000 for weekends to encourage weekday travel so that demand is not heavily concentrated on the weekends.

To mitigate infection risks, the government intends to require that travelers provide proof of vaccination or submit a negative COVID-19 test.

Resuming the campaign may offer a glimmer of hope for the battered tourism industry, but how much it will actually reinvigorate travel demand and consumption remains to be seen.

Some economists have said that the Go To Travel program had a sizable economic impact last year.

Hideo Kumano, chief economist at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute, said in a report last December that the campaign boosted consumption by ¥1.46 trillion from July to December. Given the fall in consumption last year due to the pandemic, that figure made a sizeable impact, he said in the report.

But some other experts say that it is difficult to gauge exactly how much the subsidy program would help stimulate the economy, saying those who really want to travel would do so even without the campaign while those who are worried about the risk of infection are unlikely to travel even with the discount.

Although the restart of the campaign has yet to be decided upon, a number of prefectural governments and local municipalities are introducing their own discount programs, mainly for local travelers.

But with COVID-19 cases remaining low, some prefectural governments may also begin to offer discounts to visitors from elsewhere in Japan.

The Chiba Prefectural Government, for example, has already made its lottery cashback program available to people from anywhere in the country. Travelers can receive ¥5,000 in cash or discounts per stay at designated hotels in the prefecture.

Information from Kyodo added

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