Passengers from abroad arrive at Narita airport near Tokyo on Oct. 11, 2022. (Kyodo)

TOKYO – Japan removed on Tuesday its cap on daily arrivals and its ban on individual, non-pre arranged trips as it seeks to revive the country's struggling inbound tourism sector by easing its Covid-19 border controls.

In addition to lifting the 50,000-person entry cap and ending the requirement that tourists travel on package tours, Japan will no longer require visitors to obtain a visa if they are citizens of a country with which Japan had a waiver agreement before the pandemic.

Domestically, the government started the National Travel Discount program, offering a financial subsidy of up to 11,000 yen (USD76) per person per night for a total of seven nights. The program started in all of Japan's 47 prefectures except for Tokyo, which will join on Oct. 20.

The relaxation of border controls is "meant to further facilitate international exchanges between our country and overseas while taking advantage of a weak yen, and it is beneficial for Japan's socio economic activities" Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said.

"Through these measures, we hope to promote tourists' travel both domestically and internationally and help revive demand hit by the pandemic and revitalize regional areas," the top government spokesman added.

"It is a landmark day for the tourism industry," said tourism minister Tetsuo Saito at a separate press conference, referring to the eased border controls and the travel promotion campaign.

Japan's border control measures have been criticized by tourism, entertainment and other industries at home and abroad for being too stringent and prolonged, and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has vowed to bring Japan's entry procedures in line with other Group of Seven nations.

The procedures are now simplified, with Japan scrapping its classification of countries and regions by Covid-19 risk and allowing people to skip Covid testing and isolation upon entry as long as they provide proof of either having undergone three vaccinations or returning a negative test result within 72 hours of departure.

Among many international travelers arriving at major international airports, 43-year-old Tanpraphan Noppanct, who arrived at Kansai airport from Bangkok with his 10-year-old daughter, said it is the first time he has come to Japan after the coronavirus outbreak and he wants to enjoy Japanese food and sightseeing.

In 2019, before the outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic, a record 31.9 million tourists visited Japan, with over two million arriving each month. The estimated monthly figure for August this year was 169,800, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Japan has been slowly easing restrictions as it cautiously opens up, raising the daily entry cap from 20,000 to 50,000 in September after previously raising it from 10,000 in June.

Amid high hopes for increased travel demand, Japan's biggest travel agency JTB Corp. said it will "thoroughly implement measures against infections so people can enjoy traveling."

The new domestic travel campaign targeting Japan residents was launched to help regional economies that relied heavily on tourism. It is subsidized by the central government but prefectural governments that are implementing the campaign can also contribute with their own subsidies.

Before the launch of the campaign, 15 prefectures told Kyodo News they are preparing their own subsidies, including Kagoshima Prefecture, which contributes to the cost of travel to its remote islands.

The central government has said it intends to remove prefectures from the program if infections spread and a state of emergency or a quasi-state of emergency is declared in the areas.

Prefectural governments can also request the central government remove them from the list of participating areas, but most have yet to set criteria to do so as they are keen to attract travelers.

"The coronavirus pandemic dealt a major blow to the tourism industry, and the travel subsidy program will be meaningful" in reviving it, said Keiichiro Kobayashi, macroeconomics professor at Keio University in Tokyo.

"Unless a new, highly virulent variant of the virus emerges, there is no need to stop economic activities, and it is appropriate for prefectural governments to make their decisions based on the status of the local medical system," Kobayashi added.

In 2020, Japan introduced the "Go To Travel" subsidy program which was similar to the latest scheme, but the government was criticized for being too slow to end it when it seemed to be contributing to the virus' spread.

A total of 87.81 million people took advantage of the program from July 22, 2020, until it ended on Dec. 28, 2020. (Kyodo)