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Travel & Leisure

Universal Studios reopens to Osaka-Kyoto-Nara travel bubble

Tourist businesses cautiously start up again with a focus on locals

Universal Studios Japan requires all visitors to wear face masks to curb the spread of the virus.   © Kyodo

OSAKA -- Summer is here at last, and Universal Studios Japan finally opened its doors again on Friday. But before you get too excited, make sure you live in or around the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. Otherwise, you won't be able to enter.

The park, which was closed for three months during the coronavirus outbreak, had opened to Osaka Prefecture residents only on June 8. People from Kyoto, Nara, Hyogo, Shiga and Wakayama prefectures, all in the region known as Kansai, will now be admitted as well.

Annual-pass holders from other prefectures will also be allowed in.

Operator USJ requires visitors to have their temperatures checked at the gate and to wear face masks. To prevent heatstroke, the park has designated areas where guests can remove their masks without facing each other.

Asked when the park might open to the rest of the country, USJ Vice President Taku Murayama said that "I personally would like to start in the summer, but we'll decide the timing carefully in consultation with authorities."

With foreign visitors still largely locked out of the country, tourism-dependent businesses in the region are trying to work out how best to bring in locals now free to travel, while also minimizing the risk of spreading the virus.

The Namba Grand Kagetsu theater in Osaka -- run by Yoshimoto Kogyo, Japan's largest entertainment group -- resumed stage performances on Friday, with precautions including better air circulation and frequent disinfection. Only 112 of the 858 seats will be available, though the company has begun offering paid online livestreams in hopes of recouping lost revenue.

Marriott International announced Friday that it would open its first luxury hotel in Japan, the JW Marriott Hotel Nara, on July 22 after postponing the previously scheduled spring launch date.

Keihan Bus resumed sightseeing tours Friday along one route, circulating around the Kyoto tourist hot spots of Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji and Kiyomizu Temple. More routes will reopen from July onward.

"The most important thing is to ensure passengers feel safe," said President Kazuya Suzuki. "We hope to reopen all six routes by November."

In the retail industry, Kintetsu Department Store's flagship Abeno Harukas location in Osaka returned to its normal operating hours of 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. as of Friday, closing a half-hour later than previously.

Airlines and rail have begun gradually stepping up service, though conditions remain far from normal. Low-cost carrier Peach Aviation resumed domestic flights Friday after a 70-day hiatus, but will operate only about 1,000 this month, a third of what it had originally planned.

"We have to revise our fiscal 2020 revenue target" of 150 billion yen ($1.4 billion), said Takeaki Mori, CEO of the ANA Holdings subsidiary.

Ridership on West Japan Railway's Kansai-area conventional trains was down 42% on the year in the first two weeks of June, an improvement from May's 68% drop. Ridership on the Sanyo Shinkansen bullet train, which runs between Osaka and the southwestern city of Fukuoka, has been slower to recover, falling 74% and 89%, respectively.

"For now, it's important for tourist spots and service facilities to convey their charms to local tourists," said Hideyuki Araki at Resona Research Institute.

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