Photo/Illutration Passengers on the platform of the Tokaido Shinkansen Line at Tokyo Station (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Bewildered local government officials are predicting potentially disastrous consequences from the central government’s decision to push up its tourism promotion program when COVID-19 cases have surged in the Tokyo area.

The “Go To Travel” subsidy program, which will cover half of the cost of domestic travel, was initially scheduled to start in early August.

But the tourism minister, Kazuyoshi Akaba, announced on July 10 that the program would begin on July 22 to prop up tourism-related businesses reeling from the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

July 10 coincidentally was the day when Tokyo reported a record 243 new COVID-19 cases.

Akaba’s announcement drew sharp criticism from around Japan.

“What had been described as a natural disaster will turn into a human disaster” if infections spread because of the Go To Travel campaign, Soichiro Miyashita, mayor of Mutsu in northern Aomori Prefecture, said.

Governor Mieko Yoshimura of northern Yamagata Prefecture noted that many prefectures are still dealing with the serious damage caused by torrential rain over the past week.

“I have doubts as to why the campaign has to be started at once nationwide considering the fact infections are increasing in Tokyo and many areas have been damaged by the heavy rain,” Yoshimura said on July 14.

The previous day, two individuals who had traveled to Yamagata from Tokyo and neighboring Saitama Prefecture tested positive for COVID-19. The last time Yamagata reported more than one new infection was on April 20.

The National Governors’ Association has issued a policy recommendation that the start of the campaign be limited to travel between neighboring prefectures.

Kumamoto Governor Ikuo Kabashima on July 14 noted that his government’s recruitment program for volunteers to help clean-up efforts from flooding and landslides would initially be limited to prefectural residents.

“If we restrain one side, economic activity would stop, but if we opened up the prefecture widely, there is also the possibility of infections increasing,” Kabashima said.

He added that he hoped the tourism campaign could be carried out while the general public tried to find the best balance between the two sides.

Even those in the tourism sector questioned the wisdom of moving up the start of the subsidy campaign.

Featuring white sand beaches, Shirahama in Wakayama Prefecture is a popular tourist destination in the Kansai region. But hotels in the area have seen revenues fall by 90 percent because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Masao Fujita, chairman of the Shirahama tourism association, said: “I have doubts as to whether now is the best time for the campaign. While we have no intention of changing the planned opening of the beaches (from July 23), we must also very carefully observe infection trends.”

For months, central government officials in various policy areas, including tourism, have faced the difficult choice of focusing on preventing a further spread of infections or resuming business operations so that the economy does not further stagnate.

Kengo Sakurada, chairman of Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives), said at his July 14 news conference that he opposed delaying the start of the Go To Travel campaign because any postponement could stir up more worries among the public.

But experts in infectious diseases said now is not the time to promote tourism

Reiko Saito, a professor of public health at Niigata University, warned that new infections could spike like they did in March and April if residents of the Tokyo metropolitan area traveled to other parts of the nation.

She said the capital and its surrounding areas not only had higher infection rates, but they also have a much larger total population to begin with.

“Looking at the example of the United States, I believe it is not possible to both prevent infections and to resume economic activities,” Saito said.

Satoshi Hori, a professor of infection control at Juntendo University in Tokyo, said starting the tourism campaign without any measures to prevent further infections would likely lead to a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Hori said efforts should be made to prevent people in areas with high numbers of new infections from visiting regions where the COVID-19 situation has been brought under control.

“There could be a collapse of the medical care structure in the many rural areas where it is fragile to begin with,” he said.

Shusaku Sasaki, an associate professor of behavioral economics at Tohoku Gakuin University, was not opposed to the tourism promotion campaign because individual consumers will have to play an important role in revitalizing the economy.

But he added that the campaign “should be implemented when the number of infections has come under control.”

The health ministry on July 14 held a meeting of its panel of experts tasked with dealing with the spread of COVID-19.

One panel member said it was unwise to now promote a greater movement of people between urban and rural areas in light of concerns about the spread of infections.

The central government plans to hold a July 16 meeting of its own panel of experts of infectious diseases to gauge their views on how to carry out the Go To Travel campaign.