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Japan Suspends Subsidized Tourism Program Amid Spike In Coronavirus Cases

Dec 20, 2020
Originally published on December 21, 2020 12:23 am

During the pandemic, Japan's government has been subsidizing travel and tourism to juice the economy. After a spike in coronavirus cases, it will now suspend the program for two weeks.

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It's hard to believe, but Japan's government has been subsidizing tourism in the midst of a pandemic. The government called a halt to the campaign last week.

But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, the controversy simmers on.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Tokyo's Asakusa district is usually thronged by foreign tourists riding rickshaws and wearing rented kimonos. They're gone these days. But there have been a few more Japanese tourists thanks to a government campaign dubbed Go To Travel.

Hiroyuki Koike, who runs a traditional towel shop in Asakusa, explains.

HIROYUKI KOIKE: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "See these?" he says, pointing to some vouchers. "You get them according to how much you spend on your hotel. And you can shop with these paper coupons." The coupons cover about half the cost of tourist lodging, dining and shopping. The promotion aims to shore up Japan's hard-hit tourism industry. Mr. Koike is happy that it brought him more customers.

KOIKE: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "But it increased the number of infections," he says. "And if we weigh the good points and bad points, I think we have no choice but to stop it."

Ayumi Arita, who works at a nearby souvenir shop, regrets the suspension of the promotion.

AYUMI ARITA: (Through interpreter) Business was finally picking up little by little. But now we are back where we started. It makes me feel sad.

KUHN: COVID cases in Japan are low by world standards, but a third wave of infections since last month has seen cases rise to record highs. Health experts warned that the travel campaign was spreading the virus, but Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga disagreed in parliament last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER YOSHIHIDE SUGA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "There is no evidence," he asserted, that the Go To Travel campaign is the main reason for the spread of infections at this moment." The campaign will be paused from December 28 to January 11 and will then resume.

Dr. Jin Kuramochi, who runs a clinic outside Tokyo, says the government's delay in acting could cost lives.

JIN KURAMOCHI: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "Stopping after two weeks is too lax," he says. "If they value human life and are trying not to lose even one, they should have said, let's stop tomorrow."

Tomoyuki Isoyama, a business journalist, says the travel campaign sends a confusing message.

TOMOYUKI ISOYAMA: (Through interpreter) The government is telling people to exercise restraint. But at the same time, they continue the Go To campaign. It's like hitting the accelerator and the brakes at the same time.

KUHN: Isoyama notes that the campaign is being pushed by Toshihiro Nikai, chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

ISOYAMA: (Through interpreter) Nikai is a cheerleader for the tourism industry. So even though there is a lot of criticism of the Go To campaign, they won't stop it.

KUHN: Nikkai's cheerleading is not surprising, as he's chairman of the All Nippon Travel Agents Association. A recent Mainichi Shimbun poll showed two-thirds of respondents think the campaign should be suspended.

Prime Minister Suga's approval ratings have plummeted, largely due to his perceived mishandling of the pandemic. Suga did himself no favors when he dined with politicians and celebrities at a swanky steakhouse last week. Reporters wanted an explanation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUGA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "There was enough distance between myself and other people," Suga said, "but I will seriously reflect on it, as it may cause people to have misunderstandings." An opposition lawmaker said there's no misunderstanding. The message is clear. The prime minister can enjoy himself and eat fancy steak while asking ordinary folks to exercise self-restraint. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.