Hard-hit Kyoto is in conflict as Japan prepares to reopen to foreign tourists after COVID lockdown

Examining the ledger of her 230-plus-year-old liquor store in Kyoto, Yasuko Fujii has mixed feelings about the return of foreign tourists who would throng the streets of Japan’s former capital before the pandemic – and buy lots of whiskey and wine.

His ambivalence reflects wider uncertainty in Japan about welcoming hordes of tourists amid fears they could trigger a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, even though a weak yen would be a big draw for tourists and a boon for local businesses.

“From a business point of view, we want foreign tourists to come,” said 79-year-old Ms. Fujii.

Millions of tourists from China, South Korea and Southeast Asia thronged Nishiki Market, where Ms Fujii’s shop is located, before curbs were put in place a while ago two years.

Locals often felt overwhelmed and many stopped coming, she said.

Kyoto hit hard and deeply relieved

Japan’s opening up to mass tourism over the past decade has boosted the economy – a record 32 million tourists visited in 2019 and spent some $38 billion – but it has also led to behavioral complaints from poor quality at sites such as Kyoto temples.

Known for its narrow streets of teahouses and ryokan inns, Kyoto has been both hit hard and deeply relieved by the absence of foreign tourists, locals say.

With the yen at its lowest in more than two decades and a resumption of global travel, Kyoto’s hard-hit hotels and traditional sweet shops should have braced for an increase in tourism.

Instead, only a few visitors have arrived as Japan allows small numbers of tourists to enter the country after easing restrictions in June.

The entrance gate to the normally crowded Kiyomizu Temple is largely deserted as of July 2020.(Reuters: Playing Kihara)

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whose ruling party is set to win upper house elections on July 10, is sticking to a gradual easing of measures after winning public support for keeping borders closed last year .

It would face a backlash if visitors trigger new COVID cases.

While the weak yen is a boon for tourists, it is a headache for the government as it drives up fuel and electricity prices.

“Our reception capacity”

At Sengyo Kimura, a fresh fish shop in Nishiki Market that has been in operation since 1620, Kaoru Kimura, 68, says she wants tourists to come back, but not so many.

The family store was inundated with visitors before the pandemic. Knowing that the Kimuras would not accept tips, visitors often left tokens of gratitude: a Canadian flag pin, paper cuts from China, Russian perfume and Hawaiian nuts.

A masked middle-aged Asian woman wearing an apron stands next to exposed pieces of fish
Kaoru Kimura prides herself on the hospitality offered at her fish shop in Nishiki Market.(Reuters: Satoshi Sugiyama)

“The problem is not with foreign tourists but rather with our ability to accommodate customers,” she said.

The number of hotels closing across the country hit a five-year high in 2021 and the local tourism industry in Kyoto has been hit hard, according to research firm Teikoku Databank.

“The damage is quite extensive,” said Teikoku analyst Keisuke Noda.

Demand has dried up for businesses like kimono rental shops, which cater mostly to foreigners.

Opposite Hakuba, an antique shop founded 40 years ago, fleets of buses brought tourists to the Daitokuji temple complex.

Now the huge parking lot is empty.

“Kyoto is a tourist city and without foreign tourists we really have problems,” said 70-year-old Hakuba manager Hiroshi Fujie, adding that he was not sure if the store could survive a third year. without foreign tourists.

For Ms. Fujii, the liquor store owner, business has returned to 60-70% of pre-pandemic levels thanks to Japanese tourists.

About 5.17 million people stayed in hotels and guesthouses in Kyoto last year, almost all of them Japanese, according to government data.

That compared to around 13.2 million in 2019, when foreigners and Japanese stayed.

Back at the fish market, workers in rubber boots and aprons were cutting up salmon and tuna, which they carefully arranged with clams and oysters in the front of the store.

Ms Kimura said she always wanted people from “all walks of life” to try their fish.

Reuters

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