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New visas for Japan a boon to the well-heeled

The initial reaction among Shanghai travelers and tour agencies to a more liberal Japanese visa policy was far from celebratory.


The new rules, which take effect on July 1 for residents of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, will give individual tourist visas to people who make at least 250,000 yuan (US$36,600) a year, about eight times the average salary in Shanghai.


As such, tour agencies contacted yesterday by Shanghai Daily believe the market will be limited, and some would-be travelers were not happy with the apparent message that only well-off Chinese are welcome in Japan.


Details on how income levels will be confirmed were not available yesterday.


What is known is that Japan-bound travelers who are Shanghai residents will need to submit their visa applicants to one of 11 designated tour companies in the city, the Japan Tourism Agency said on Tuesday. Travelers will also have to book their air tickets and hotel rooms through those agencies, which already have experience in arranging group trips to Japan.


By July next year, the individual-visa option will also be opened to residents of all Chinese cities.


The Japanese authorities hope the policy will attract at least 250,000 more tourists from the Chinese mainland each year, in addition to the current 1 million. They set the income requirement to help prevent Chinese from staying on in the country after their visa period expires.


Local travel agencies said the policy will not send a rush of tourists to Japan.


"After all, only a small group of people will be able to meet the income requirement," said Yu Weihua, general manager of Shanghai China International Travel Service Co Ltd, which is among the 11 agencies that can accept the new visa applications.


And even if they do qualify, few people who have never visited Japan will choose a self-guided tour because of worries over the language barrier and other travel challenges, Yu indicated.


Some local travelers said the policy is unfair for those who aren't high earners, noting that tourist visas to Southeast Asian nations and some countries in Europe are not as strict.


"I never travel with tour groups, and I've been to several countries ," said Guo Ailing, who makes about 100,000 yuan a year. "The Japan tour policy won't help us white collar workers."


The new policy follows an earlier change in Japan's visa rules in March last year, when the country began allowing groups as small as three people to book their own itineraries. But they were required to take along a tour agency guide, which could cost as much as US$100 a day.


Most Shanghainese choose to visit Japan as a member of a larger guided tour group ranging from five and 40 people.


(Shanghai Daily March 26, 2009)