What it's like traveling to Japan amid the Omicron variant

Asia's Tech News Daily

Like so many people around the world, my life was massively upended by the pandemic.

What it's like traveling to Japan amid the Omicron variant
© Hiro Komae/AP Men hold their phones as they stand by an arrival gate for international flights at the Narita International Airport in Narita, east of Tokyo, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Going further than many other countries in trying to contain the virus, Japan has banned foreign visitors and asked international airlines to stop taking new reservations for all flights arriving in the country until the end of December.(AP Photo/Hiro Komae)

After getting legally married in 2019, my husband and I planned to have our wedding celebration early the following year in California.

We were living in Beijing when the Covid-19 outbreak began. Soon after my husband left for a short business trip in Dubai, but he ended up getting stuck there for nine months.

We finally reunited at my new work base of Tokyo, and in the process delayed the wedding three times before finally settling on November 19, 2021.

Surrounded by friends and family I hadn’t seen in years, life started to feel like it was returning to normal.

From southern California, we went to Hawaii for a honeymoon. We were amazed by the crowds of tourists, the fully booked hotels, packed beaches and busy restaurants.

But that feeling of normalcy was short lived. On November 30, just days before we were due to fly back to Japan, the country reported its first case of the Omicron variant.

Japan once again closed its borders to all foreigners, in one of the world’s strictest precautionary measures. Initially, the government even asked airlines to stop accepting reservations for inbound flights.

Just a day later, Japan retracted the ban, following an outcry that it would strand Japanese residents and nationals — I am a resident with a work visa — overseas. Daily international arrivals were reduced from 5,000 to 3,500 people per day.

My flight back to Tokyo from Hawaii was canceled at the last minute, with no warning — I didn’t realize it was canceled until I tried to check in online the day before, only to discover my itinerary didn’t exist. After hours on the phone with airline customer service, it ended up that our only option was to fly back to California, then all the way back to Japan.

Less than an hour before we arrived at the airport in Honolulu, negative PCR tests in hand, Hawaii was added to the list of places where arriving Japanese residents and nationals would have to quarantine at government-designated quarantine facilities. (After already being quarantined in Beijing, Hong Kong and Tokyo before, I was ready for it.)

Hawaii confirmed its first case of the Omicron variant on December 2, the day before our flight.

When my husband and I finally arrived in Tokyo on December 5, we went through the lengthy process of filling out health questionnaires, getting Covid tested and downloading contact tracing apps. We were shuttled through empty Narita airport for each step until finally being directed to a waiting area.

Ten hours later, we finally got on a bus to a hotel near the airport that had been turned into a quarantine facility.

Opening the door in the quarantine room — except to briefly grab food left outside — is banned. The loudspeaker announces three times a day when the food is available, “Squid Game” style. Each morning we have to submit a health questionnaire online.

On the third day, we’ll be Covid-tested, then sent back to the airport. From there, travelers have to take private transport to quarantine at home for 11 more days. (Depending on the region they came from, some travelers have to quarantine in the government facility for up to 14 days.)

The Japanese government counts the day post-landing as day one of quarantine. The government pays costs associated with quarantine, not travelers.

The World Health Organization has warned that “Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”

As governments have rushed to impose a fresh round of restrictions, travelers have found themselves confused, frustrated and — in some cases — suddenly stranded. Rules are changing by the day, even by the hour, putting the burden on travelers to be prepared for any scenario.

Other Asian regions have taken even more extreme measures. Residents of Hong Kong have to quarantine for 21 days (paid out of their own pocket) in government hotels if they’re returning from countries considered high risk.

After more than a year of tough border controls, many there are feeling isolated, frustrated, and trapped. But in combination with other pandemic control measures, these regions have reported low Covid case counts, with single-digit daily case numbers in Hong Kong and around a hundred per day in Japan.

Research shows that travel bans are more like a Band-Aid than a long-term solution. At the same time, they exact high economic and social costs. Nearly two years into the pandemic, the world was just starting to breathe a sigh of relief. Gatherings like weddings, holiday trips, and international family reunions were finally resuming.

Instead, new variants continue to emerge. The world remains vulnerable due to factors like uneven distribution of vaccines around the world and limited duration of immunity from vaccines.

So expect the new variant(s) to continue to wreak havoc on travel plans everywhere as governments keep on playing a game of Whac-a-mole.

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