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Travel & Leisure

Japan travel industry faces stark holiday season

Suspension of Go To Travel program elicits shock and resignation

Kimono-clad tourists wearing protective face masks are seen at a temple in Tokyo. The Japanese government's Go To Travel campaign has been suspended for the New Year's holidays, from Dec. 28 to Jan.11.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The Japanese government's announcement that it will suspend the Go To Travel domestic tourism campaign over rising COVID-19 cases has elicited surprise and resignation from a travel industry preparing for the busy New Year's period.

"We have no choice but to monitor the situation with the reservations and reduce flights as needed," a Japan Airlines representative said.

JAL had initially predicted December's passenger traffic to hit 70% of the year-earlier number. This has been revised to roughly 60% following November's suspension of such locales as Osaka and Sapporo as Go To destinations.

Now, with the entire program on hold, "demand will inescapably drop further," in the words of an airline industry source, likely forcing carriers to cut flights.

The nationwide suspension runs from Dec. 28 to Jan. 11 but starts sooner in Tokyo and Nagoya.

Travel company KNT-CT Holdings' December orders for domestic tours are up 6% on the year all regional group companies, and January orders are on a par with year-earlier levels.

But February orders are not even half those of a year earlier, because the Go To discounts do not apply to that month. Now, there will be no subsidies for the New Year's travel season.

"The announcement was unexpected," a KNT manager said. "Bookings for the three-day weekend of Jan. 9-11 were robust, but we probably won't avoid an uptick in cancellations."

A representative at a major travel company said the Go To suspension will have a "serious impact." When Osaka and Sapporo were earlier struck off the list of eligible destinations, the company took on massive extra work recovering already-issued coupons and rail tickets.

"I would urge for a program designed in a way that decreases the burden for ground-level staff," a manager there said.

A hotel in Tokyo is bracing for blowback as well.

"Even if the New Year's holidays will be ineligible, I believe a certain number of people will still lodge here [during that time], but the extension to the three-day weekend [through Jan. 11] will have quite a large impact," a manager said.

Figures representing Japan's vacation spots, which have benefited from the Go To program, have spoken out about the discontinued travel subsidies.

"It's important to contain the outbreak, but it will be very hard for tourist areas," an official at Takayama city's tourism bureau said.

Takayama, in northern Gifu Prefecture, had lost tourists in the spring but recovered somewhat in October and November. The comeback owed to Go To travelers from Gifu and surrounding prefectures, according to the Takayama official.

"The program is being suspended although businesses have not yet fully recovered," the official said. "We had anticipated quite high domestic demand at the end of the year, so the impact on the restaurant and lodging industry will be enormous."

Kobe's Arima hot-springs resort facilities saw visitors recover to around 70% to 80% of normal numbers during the three-day weekend in November.

Nowadays, "cancellations for the end of the year have started to emerge since about last week," said a manager representing the Arima Hot Spring Tourists Association. "It's expected given the current disease situation, but the effect will likely ensue from here on out."

"It's especially regrettable after we disinfect with alcohol, take temperatures and do everything to ensure our customers do not get infected," said the manager.

The Rose Hotel Yokohama had seen restaurant and lodging demand pick up thanks to Go To.

"The end of the year is when you celebrate with meals and lodging, so the shock will be great, but there are no other options with the current outbreak situation," hotel chief Kazuki Watanabe said.

But Watanabe looks forward to capturing stay-at-home demand, saying, "I anticipate orders for takeout and deliveries to grow."

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