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Travel & Leisure

Japan's domestic travel campaign gets off to rocky start

Plane and train demand nose-dives for holiday weekend while hotels woo locals

Visitors wearing protective face masks walk along Nakamise Street at Asakusa district of Tokyo, which was excluded from the travel program.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- A controversial Japanese campaign to promote domestic travel kicked off Wednesday, but the demand outlook remains dim going into a four-day holiday weekend as Tokyo and now Osaka grapple with rising coronavirus cases.

The "Go To Travel" campaign offers subsidies covering half of eligible travel expenses, up to 20,000 yen ($187) per night. The government decided last week to exclude Tokyo from the program due to a resurgence of the coronavirus there, a move that has reverberated through the travel industry.

Japan Airlines on Wednesday cut an additional 376 flights between Aug. 1 and Aug. 6, mostly to and from Tokyo's Haneda Airport. The carrier has started to see a marked increase in cancellations, and passenger traffic over the four days starting Thursday is expected to drop by half from the equivalent period a year earlier.

Train ridership is faring no better. Seat reservations on East Japan Railway's bullet and conventional trains over the long weekend are down to 30% of 2019 levels.

Hotels, meanwhile, have had mixed results attracting visitors from outside the capital.

Hoshino Resorts, which operates locations throughout the country, says nearly all its accommodations are almost fully booked for the holiday break. More than 40% of guests at a hot spring inn in the Kanagawa Prefecture resort town of Hakone hail from within the prefecture, according to the company, which reports a rise in local travelers.

Many hotels at the Kusatsu hot spring, a popular tourist destination northwest of Tokyo, are close to full for the four-day weekend, the local tourism organization says.

"There's been a sharp increase in tourists from within the prefecture, and not many reservations were canceled due to the exclusion of Tokyo" from the Go To Travel program, a representative said.

Hotel Kujukuri on Chiba Prefecture's Kujukuri Beach, a favorite spot for surfers, has been less fortunate, seeing a number of cancellations for the long weekend. The hotel had been at full occupancy but will now have vacancies on Thursday and Friday.

Reservations show a poor outlook for travel during the Bon summer holiday next month, normally one of the year's busiest travel periods.

The six Japan Railways passenger rail companies had a total of 750,000 seats reserved between Aug. 7 and Aug. 17 as of Tuesday, down 79% from 2019. Reservations at Central Japan Railway and West Japan Railway were down by more than three-quarters, suggesting that big cities have been hit hard.

About 60% to 70% of rooms are booked for the Bon holiday at an inn in Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture, which is known for its reconstructed 14th-century castle and other historic sites. "Reservations haven't risen as much as usual for August," a representative said.

In a survey by restaurant reservation and review service Gurunavi, a roughly 40% plurality of respondents said they plan to spend the upcoming four-day weekend at home. This was followed by going out to eat and shopping at 28% and 21%, respectively, while day trips were the most popular travel-related answer at 15%.

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