Japan’s transport and hospitality industries are struggling to find enough staff to keep up with a rebound in demand, as tourists return to the country after the borders reopened a month ago.
The number of people working at hotels and inns is 30 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, according to the Japan Accommodation and Lodging Foundation, while airlines and tour bus operators report full bookings.
To a certain extent, Japan’s struggles mirror what the US and Europe saw over the summer, when a rebound in travellers overwhelmed airports and travel businesses that had cut back on staffing. Although Japan didn’t go into full lockdown, the job market was already tight and people found other readily available work.
Now, with the borders fully open to vaccinated travellers since October 11, the island nation is poised to see a tourism boom, thanks to strong demand and a weaker yen that’s making the country more affordable.
“It’s going to be difficult to catch taxis if overseas visitors return to pre-coronavirus levels,” said Kazuki Otsuka, chief executive officer of Daiwa Motor Transportation Co., one of the country’s largest taxi and limousine operators.
The number of tourists entering Japan jumped to 288,900 last month, more than 15-fold from a year earlier, according to immigration data obtained by Fuji News Network. Official figures from the Japan National Tourism Organization are due to be released later on Wednesday.
The reported figure still pales in comparison to the record 32 million inbound visitors Japan saw during the peak of a tourism boom in 2019. With the nation’s economy unexpectedly shrinking last quarter, the prospect of renewed inbound spending by foreign tourists offers one bright spot.
There were already signs of an uptick, even before the October reopening. Foreign travel spending, defined as spending on goods and services by non-residents during visits, rose 51 per cent in September to 63.9 billion yen (US$455 million) from a year earlier, according to balance of payments data from the Ministry of Finance.
ANA Holdings Inc., which seconded staff to other industries as the carrier cut back on flights, is now recalling them as it adds back routes. Flights to Narita from Hong Kong have been almost fully booked since October 11, the airline said in a statement.
“Tour agencies are flooding us with reservations and our schedule is filling up this year and the next two years,” said Shinji Ohgami, an executive officer at Ryobi Holdings Co., which operates 700 buses nationwide and has 8,500 employees. The industry has only three drivers for every 20 buses, according to Ohgami.
Tabist, a hotel-management company backed by SoftBank Group Corp. and India’s OYO Hotels, sees inbound demand for its properties jumping to 1.5 million tourists from hundreds of thousands currently, even without visitors from China, where travel in and out of the country remains restricted.
“Our industry reduced all management resources, including people, goods and money, for the past two and a half years,” said Tabist President Ryota Tanozaki.
Daiwa Motor is looking to add more drivers, including college graduates and mid-career hires, according to Otsuka.
In order to attract staff, the taxi company is redesigning its uniforms and promoting a programme that lets employees to earn MBAs at the company’s expense.
“We have no choice but to work hard and persevere,” Otsuka said.