There is a growing chorus calling for an early resumption of the government’s Go To Travel campaign within the tourism industry, which has been devastated by the prolonged novel coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the clamoring, the government plans not to restart the program, which has been suspended since the end of last year, at least until mid-January.
The government’s draft economic measures, which were presented to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, only said preparations will be made for reopening the subsidy program, without mentioning any date.
We understand the need to provide policy support to the tourism industry. But the government should not forget that new COVID-19 cases surged last autumn when the program was in place.
Experts are divided on whether and how the campaign contributes to the spread of the coronavirus. But the government’s plan to deal with the pandemic should be based on a worst-case scenario.
The reality argues against implementing the program during the year-end and New Year holidays since there are concerns about a sixth wave of infections in winter.
Even before the campaign is resumed, the so-called “kenmin wari” programs offered independently by prefectural governments, under which half of travel expenses or up to 5,000 yen ($43.86) are subsidized, are expected to be expanded to cover destinations in neighboring prefectures.
If the COVID-19 situation remains under control until the end of winter, while progress is made in enhancing the health care system’s ability to deal with patients and in the availability of treatments, resuming the program will become a viable policy option.
The question is whether the government can work out effective measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The government says tourists using the program will be required to show a vaccination or a negative test certificate as part of efforts to prevent infections. But the plan must require a swift suspension of the program once signs of spikes in new cases emerge.
The government was slow to suspend the campaign last winter despite a resurgence of cases.
To avoid making the same mistake, the government needs to explain in advance the criteria for taking the step and the division of responsibilities between the central and local governments with regard to such decisions.
Otherwise, the public will remain wary about the program. Policymakers should keep this in mind.
It is also crucial to take steps to prevent excessive congestion.
Under the plan on the table, the coupons that tourists can use in areas where they stay will have fixed values of 3,000 yen for weekdays and 1,000 yen for holidays. Previously, the coupons were designed to cover 15 percent of travel expenses or up to 6,000 yen.
However, the rate of discount on travel expenses will be fixed at 30 percent for both weekdays and holidays.
The government needs to consider carefully whether the plan will help flatten out demand over weekdays and holidays.
It is necessary for the government to work with travel agents to determine how much differences are needed between subsidies for weekdays and for holidays for the approach to be effective.
The average ratio of paid days off actually taken in Japan is lower than in many other countries.
If the Go To Travel program inspires Japanese corporate employees to take more of their entitled paid days off, that could reduce the heavy dependence of the tourism industry on demand concentrated around holidays.
Excessive discounts that boost traveling could end up causing a sharp decline in demand for travel after the program ends.
It could also create a sense of unfairness among people who cannot take trips due to reasons related to their jobs or financial situations.
There is still time for preparations until the program is resumed. The government needs to use the time to address possible issues with the program while consulting with experts.
–The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 19