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How it’s to travel to Japan in the middle of the Omicron variant

Tokyo (CNN) – Like so many people around the world, my life has been dramatically changed by the pandemic.

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

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

We finally got together at my new work base in Tokyo and delayed the wedding three times before settling in permanently on November 19, 2021.

Surrounded by friends and family that I hadn’t seen in years, life began to feel like a return to normal.

From Southern California, we went to Hawaii for a honeymoon. We were amazed by the crowds of tourists, the full hotels, the crowded beaches and the bustling restaurants.

But this sense of normalcy was short-lived. On November 30, just days before we returned to Japan, the country reported its first case of the Omicron variant.

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

Just a day later, Japan withdrew the ban, following an outcry that it would block residents and Japanese nationals – I’m a resident on a work visa – abroad. Daily international arrivals have been reduced from 5,000 to 3,500 people per day.

My return flight to Tokyo from Hawaii was canceled at the last minute without warning. After spending hours on the phone with airline customer service, it turned out that our only option was to fly back to California and then return to Japan.

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

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 long process of filling out health questionnaires, getting tested for Covid, and downloading contact tracing apps. We were transported through the empty Narita airport for each stop until we were finally 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 center.

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

On the third day, we will be tested for Covid, then sent back to the airport. From there, travelers must take private transportation to quarantine themselves at home for an additional 11 days. (Depending on where they are from, some travelers may need to quarantine themselves at the government facility for up to 14 days.)

The Japanese government counts the day after landing as the first day of quarantine. The government pays the costs associated with quarantine, not the travelers.

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

As governments rushed to impose a new round of restrictions, travelers found themselves confused, frustrated and – in some cases – suddenly stranded. The rules change from day to day, even hour to hour, forcing travelers to be prepared for any scenario.

Other Asian regions have taken even more extreme measures. Hong Kong residents must self-quarantine for 21 days (paid for out of pocket) in government hotels if returning from countries considered high risk.

After more than a year of rigorous border controls, many feel isolated, frustrated and trapped. But in combination with other pandemic measures, those regions have reported low numbers of Covid cases, with daily single-digit cases in Hong Kong and around 100 a day in Japan.

Research shows that travel bans are more like a band-aid than a long-term solution. At the same time, they entail high economic and social costs. Almost two years after the start of the pandemic, the world was just beginning to breathe a sigh of relief. Gatherings like weddings, vacation trips, and international family reunions were finally picking up.

Instead, new variations continue to emerge. The world remains vulnerable due to factors such as the uneven distribution of vaccines around the world and the limited duration of vaccine immunity.

So expect the new variant (s) to continue wreaking havoc on travel plans everywhere as governments continue to play Whac-a-mole.

Photo of arrivals hall at Tokyo Narita Airport via AP Photo / Hiro Komae.


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