Japan kicks off domestic tourism campaign as critics point to virus surge

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan launched a national travel campaign on Wednesday that aims to revive a battered tourism industry, but the effort has drawn heavy criticism as major cities have racked up a jump in new coronavirus cases.

Women in yukata, or casual summer kimonos, wearing protective face masks, walk along Nakamise Street at Asakusa district, a popular sightseeing spot, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Tokyo, Japan July 22, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato

“Go To Travel”, dubbed instead “Go To Trouble” by some domestic media, offers subsidies of up to 50% for trips to and from prefectures except for Tokyo, which was dropped from the programme last week after infections surged to new highs.

But many of Japan’s governors wanted the campaign delayed or altered, for fear visitors could carry the virus to rural areas with few infections. A Mainichi newspaper poll this week showed 69% of the public wanted the programme cancelled entirely.

The criticism underlines the public’s growing exasperation with what critics say are the government’s mixed messages as it tries to boost the economy while reining in the virus.

“There is no change to our stance to cautiously restart economic activity, while asking the public to cooperate in preventing the spread of the coronavirus,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters on Wednesday, when asked about the campaign.

However, Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike has urged residents of the capital to stay home during a four-day weekend from Thursday.

“It’s essential for the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions to refrain from making unnecessary outings,” she added.

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Many in the travel industry were frustrated at what they called a lack of clarity.

“It’s clear the government is scrambling and was totally unprepared,” said the general manager of a mid-sized business hotel in Osaka, who sought anonymity, as the topic is sensitive.

“It’s also so hard to get information about this scheme because things change a lot.”

Another hotel official said he hoped the campaign would boost the ailing tourism industry, but was not overly optimistic.

“Tokyo is our big market,” said Hiroaki Gofuku, the president and general manager of Hotel Nikko Osaka. “With this mess, we’re actually seeing more cancellations.”

Osaka set a record daily high with about 120 new infections on Wednesday, Kyodo news agency cited Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura as saying, while daily infections in Tokyo were 238.

Japan had been planning to relax curbs on stadiums and concert venues from August 1, allowing them to operate at half of maximum capacity, without the current 5,000-person limit.

But the target date will be pushed to the end of August, Economic Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters on Wednesday, after a meeting with experts.

Although Japan has not suffered the rapid spread that has killed tens of thousands elsewhere, new cases in Tokyo and other cities have sounded the alarm over the virus once thought to be under control.

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: click here)

Reporting by Sakura Murakami, Leika Kihara and Takashi Umekawa; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Clarence Fernandez