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Travel & Leisure

Japan tour guides face job losses as coronavirus slams travel

Government rushes to roll out relief measures to counter plunge in foreign visitors

Crowds are sparse, even at destinations such as Tokyo's Asakusa, popular with foreign visitors. (Photo by Kei Higuchi)

TOKYO -- Japan on Thursday is set to announce foreign visitor figures for February, which are expected to have plunged as travel bans and restrictions in Asia and around the world triggered by the novel coronavirus wreak havoc on the country's tourism sector, long seen by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a key to revitalizing the nation's economy.

The government is pledging financial aid, but people in the industry, anxious about the threat to livelihoods with no signs of improvement on the horizon, say more needs to be done.

A ban issued by China on Jan. 27 for overseas group tours coincided with the country's Lunar New Year holiday, a time of peak foreign travel. Many tourist destinations in Japan were expecting to welcome large numbers of Chinese visitors. Hopes were even higher as the industry was already suffering from a sharp decline in travelers from South Korea after months of increased political and economic tensions between Seoul and Tokyo.

And to make things even worse, the World Health Organization this month recognized the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic, sparking a wave of new travel restrictions in Europe and North America as well.

It has all combined to deliver a body blow to Japan's tourism sector, with guides, who often work on a freelance basis, seeing opportunities -- and incomes -- dry up.

"Some tour guides even saw their work schedule for November canceled," Masayo Hagimura, president of the Japan Guide Association, said with a sigh. "Spring and autumn are the biggest seasons for us," Hagimura said. The association is a nonprofit organization for licensed foreign language tour guides. Many of them work as freelancers serving group tourists and individuals.

Hagimura, who has queried some of the organization's nearly 900 members, said that workloads for March and April had declined more than 80% on average.

Some had no foreseeable business coming, including Hagimura herself. She guides foreign tourists in Spanish, Portuguese and English. She had lined up a group tour from Brazil of nearly 30 people at the end of March but it was canceled several days ago, after the Brazilian travel company arranging the trip found out that insurance wouldn't cover their customers even if they tested positive for the virus.

Only a few tourists are seen in Narita international airport. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Japan last week announced a financial aid package worth 1 trillion yen ($9.6 billion) for small and medium-sized companies as well as self-employed workers in tourism and other virus-hit industries. That came soon after it rolled out an initial 500 billion-yen package in February, which mainly provided low-interest loans.

The latest lifeline calls for offering freelancers and non-regular workers interest-free loans of up to 100,000 yen, and a subsidy of up to 4,100 yen a day per worker for those having children attending elementary school and who have to take a leave as schools are now closed. But those totals are less than half what those employed by companies receive.

"The current package is not enough," Hagimura says, as 100,000 yen covers "salary for only about three days." That is causing some guides to seek other jobs. Together with other guide associations, Hagimura's group is planning to submit a paper demanding further assistance to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

Numerous other tourism-related companies are also suffering from the sudden loss of guests. According to a survey conducted earlier this month by credit researcher Tokyo Shoko Research, 62.2 percent of service sector establishments, including hotels, travel companies and restaurants, responded that they are "already impacted" by the coronavirus outbreak, the highest ratio among any sector surveyed.

"We are making sure that none of these companies make their employees take unpaid leave, regardless of full-time employment or not," said Sohichiroh Ishikawa, general secretary of the Japan Federation of Service & Tourism Industries Workers' Unions, where Tokyo hotel operator Fujita Kanko, the Imperial Hotel and other large hotels participate.

Small companies are already being forced to close down. Fujimiso, a six-decade-old traditional Japanese inn, is said to be one of the first bankruptcies in the country resulting from the coronavirus spread. Tamuraya Ryokan, another Japanese-style hotel with more than a century of history, and Mito Shoji, a tour bus operator, also filed bankruptcies, according to Tokyo Shoko Research.

"Cash flow and employment are definitely the biggest priorities to protect (in order) to continue their business," said Masato Takamatsu, managing director and chief research officer at JTB Tourism Research & Consulting. Tourism-related companies are now trying to reduce labor costs by first laying off non-regular employees, he said, adding that the government should provide more support to save their jobs. "The industry is already suffering from a huge labor shortage," he said.

Timely updated information is also critical in keeping the tourism sector alive amid the outbreak, Takamatsu said. "It is necessary to give a sense of safety to visitors (from) outside, by showing what each company is doing to decrease infection risks. But securing employment is what we need to do now."

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