Japan’s GoTo Travel Campaign and Coronavirus

Capitalism needs people spending money to work, but what happens when a global pandemic threatens to shut down commerce? What if your country isn’t experiencing it very harshly and you’re still suffering a slumping economy with businesses closing? Japan tested one possible solution to help its especially struggling tourism sector: The GoTo Travel campaign was designed to promote domestic tourism while its borders were closed but did it work as intended?

What is GoTo Travel?

Ginza Lion Mask - Two Second Street - www.twosecondstreet.com
Mitsukoshi Department Store: Famous for the lions out front, now with masks

Started on July 22, 2020, GoTo Travel was a way for the Abe administration (now passed on to the Suga administration) to encourage in-country travel to help stimulate struggling areas who depended mainly on tourism. Just a reminder: During that time, daily Coronavirus cases were at 567 and climbing, as the country was in the grips of a second wave.

GoTo travel could see discounts for travelers of up to 50%, with the breakdown being an up-front 35% discount on total costs of your trip with an additional 15% of that total cost being given to you as coupons to spend at participating vendors. Most vendors will have a sign showing you which type of coupons from the campaign they accept and the specified area your coupon is assigned (for example, if you stay in Tokyo, you are given Tokyo coupons. If you venture out to Chiba, you need Chiba coupons). Getting the discounts can be a bit confusing, as you need a travel agent to help book. Alternatively, Booking.com and a few other websites automatically arrange the GoTo travel deal for you, easing the difficulty in getting the discount and coupons.

Full disclosure: For my birthday staycation, I was able to benefit from the GoTo Travel discounts. Those discounts really made the whole trip affordable. If not for the campaign, we may not have done this, and there may lay the problem: It worked maybe too well in luring out travelers during a time when maybe it wasn’t the best to be traveling.

The campaign was scheduled to last for reservations made through January 31, 2021. But did it stick to that timetable? The plot thickened late November!

The Third Wave and GoTo Travel Fallout

Indian Statue with Mask - Two Second Street - www.twosecondstreet.com
“Ma’am, please stay six feet away. Thank you!”

On November 21, many announcements were made about the fate of the GoTo Travel campaign, seeing as numbers of new Coronavirus infections spiked to 2398, with over 500 of those being located in Tokyo. The Tokyo Medical Association called for the campaign to be halted entirely. The government began meeting with governors of hard-hit areas to discuss the immediate shut-down of the campaign for their regions. This just means that new reservations cannot be made, not that previously-made reservations would be cancelled. In December, the program was suspended initially through February 7th, but now that has been pushed back into early March, for a multitude of reasons, some health-based, others political.

The program was met with a lot of pushback from opposition parties and medical professionals: The last thing Japan needed during the pandemic was a campaign encouraging people to travel around the country. The post-mortem doesn’t look good for this policy decision: Around 40% of Coronavirus cases in Japan from May to August in 2020 were likely caused by the increase in travel, due in part to the Go To Travel campaign. Japan’s response to the pandemic, based on publicly available infection rates and related data, placed them 45th out of 98 (for context, New Zealand was 1st and the USA ranked 94th). It seems that the increased infections that likely spread through travel hurt the ranking considerably, in spite of Japan’s relatively low infection rates.

With the end of one program, we see some great news: The vaccines under consideration for use in Japan have been approved and they have begun vaccinating essential workers in healthcare. The country may even achieve herd immunity by October, if all goes well. Here’s hoping that we are making progress and that we can learn from this disease to better prevent such a global catastrophe in the future.

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