Some Singapore travel agencies say Japan tours to begin only in July

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): On Sunday (June 12), Jane Lam booked an eight-day, seven-night Central Japan Family Theme Park package with travel agency EU Holidays during the year-end holidays for her family of four.

The 44-year-old housewife, who will be travelling with her husband and two children aged 14 and 16, booked the tour package, which includes trips to Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan.

Her family last visited Japan four years ago, and her children are excited to revisit the country in December.

“We chose Japan because of the theme parks. We didn’t consider other countries with theme parks because we don’t want a long flight,” said Lam.

She is among those who have booked a tour package to Japan as the country reopened its borders to tourists on package tours from June 10.

Travellers from 98 countries and regions, including Singapore, can enter Japan without quarantine regardless of their vaccination status, so long as they produce a negative pre-departure polymerase chain reaction test.

Japan’s first arrivals of tourists are expected this week due to administrative procedures. Japan’s government is accepting registrations by travel agents through a new portal, where they must enter information of tour participants including passport numbers and accommodation details, to apply for tourist visas.

These visas are a new requirement for Singapore and other passport holders, who could previously travel visa-free to Japan.

The Japan Tourism Agency said it can take at least five working days for these visas to be approved.

With these requirements in place, several travel agencies that The Straits Times spoke to said their tour packages will begin only from July.

Jeremiah Wong, senior marketing communications manager at Chan Brothers Travel, said it expects the “potentially earliest departure” to be after mid-July, due to travel requirements and documentation such as the tourist visa application.

Similarly, Mandy Chen, marketing manager at EU Holidays, said it will be rolling out its first private travel group of three people who will leave for Tohoku on July 15, and its first tour group of 15 people to Hokkaido on July 23.

The tour agency’s director, Wong Yew Hoong, added that the tour packages will begin from July as tourists could apply for the tourist visa only last week.

Likewise, Hong Thai Travel’s deputy general manager Peggie Chung said the Japan visa application is the main concern for it as well.

She added that it had commenced group bookings from July, but people seem to be “more comfortable” booking from September onwards.

“Our first groups of travellers include departures on Sept 27 and Oct 14 to Yamagata and Hokkaido.”

Despite tour groups departing for Japan from July, tour agencies reported a surge in bookings since it was announced on May 17 that the country will reopen to tourists.

EU Holidays’ Chen said about 400 people have made bookings to Japan so far, up from 200 since the travel agency held a Japan travel fair on May 21 and 22.

“(From) now till year end, we have prepared 100 groups to visit different parts of Japan,” she said.

Chan Brothers Travel’s Wong also said it has continued to see demand for its Japan tours.

In end-April, the travel agency launched a new series of its popular Japan package tours, which can cater for up to 30 people per group. In mid-May, it also launched a small group tour series with a maximum group size of nine.

“At the end of May, there were more than 25 groups that had been formed for the Japan tours. Now this has risen to more than 50 groups,” said Wong.

However, some travellers prefer to take a wait-and-see approach before travelling to Japan.

Tourists heading to Japan must also buy travel insurance, be chaperoned by a tour guide “from arrival to departure”, follow a strict itinerary, and adhere to rules such as mask-wearing most of the time, or face expulsion.

Agatha Lim, who hopes to travel to Japan, is waiting to see if the country will further ease border restrictions.

“Going on a tour means that I have to follow a certain itinerary. I prefer going on my own and have my own plans when I travel,” said the 29-year-old business executive, adding that tour packages are also costly.

On Monday (June 13), the Airports Council International (ACI) Asia-Pacific said it saw the Japan government’s decision to remove border measures as a “positive step”. However, it urged a complete removal of international air travel restrictions as the industry cannot recover fully amid curbs.

Stefano Baronci, director-general of ACI Asia-Pacific, said curbs on international travel do little to prevent the spread of Covid-19 but lead to significant impact on the economy.