Study ties Covid surge in Japan to domestic travel push

Nakamise Shopping street at Sensoji Temple with some people with masks during the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Japan’s introduction of a domestic travel subsidy programme to boost the pandemic-hit sector may have facilitated the spread of the virus in the country, according to a recent study.

The Go To Travel campaign, which was launched on July 22, has been suspended since December 28 due to rising infections in urban areas.

Government scheme promoting cross-provincial travel may have led to spike in Covid cases in Japan, finds study 

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, surveyed some 4,000 people from 24 prefectures who were diagnosed with Covid-19 between May and August 2020. It found 817 of them had crossed prefectural borders or had come in close contact with people who had. Overall, the number of travel-associated cases nationwide over that period rose around threefold, while cases linked to tourism increased sevenfold.

Hiroshi Noshiura and Asami Anzai, the Kyoto University researchers who penned the study, said “enhanced domestic tourism may have contributed to increasing travel-associated Covid-19 cases,” adding that “it is natural that enhancing human mobility across wider geographic areas would facilitate additional contact,” thereby spreading the virus.

The paper supports an earlier report, published in December 2020 by researchers from the University of Tokyo and the University of California, which found that respondents who had participated in the travel subsidy scheme reported higher rates of Covid-19 symptoms than did non-participants. The report surveyed more than 25,000 people in Japan.

Despite the reported link between domestic travel and growth in Covid-19 cases, support for Go To Travel remains among sectors of government, the travel industry and the general public. Hotels and ryokan inns, in particular, have said the subsidy has been successful in boosting sales, which have slumped since the suspension.

Japan is eyeing the reopening of the initiative once the uptick in infections is curbed. Prime minister Yoshihide Suga is among its chief supporters, citing the US$16.2 billion campaign as a way to keep accommodations afloat to reach the government’s target of attracting 60 million inbound visitors by 2030.

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