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( 3 mins)

The Abe administration’s “Go To Travel” domestic tourism campaign will begin as planned on Wednesday, 22 July amid widespread controversy over whether the government should be promoting tourism when Japan’s largest cities are coping with sharp increases in new Covid-19 cases. As a result, the government’s decision to move up the start of the program from August is unlikely to provide much relief for a tourism sector that is suffering from the near-total absence of international visitors since April.

After sparking criticism for its sudden decision to exclude travelers to and from Tokyo from the promotional campaign, the Abe government is now facing criticism for reversing its position on whether it would compensate individuals who canceled plans booked 10-17 July due to Tokyo’s being excluded from the program. The government first insisted on 17 July that it would not provide subsidies for cancellation fees but decided on Tuesday, 21 July that it would in fact compensate individuals for cancellation fees. This decision has been criticized by hoteliers and other businesses that are the intended beneficiaries of the program, who fear the policy will encourage more cancellations and that the funds to provide compensation will come out of the JPY 1.3tn (USD 12.2bn) budgeted for the “Go To Travel” campaign. The program has been otherwise criticized for a confusing formula for distributing subsidies.

The biggest liability, however, is that the program’s launch comes as fears of a second wave grow. While Tokyo remains the epicenter of new infections – Tokyo’s number of new infections was back above 200 for the first time in three days on Tuesday, and its hospitalization rate has doubled over the past ten days – other prefectures have also seen significant increases. Aichi and Fukuoka prefectures, home to major urban centers, recorded new highs for new cases in a single day on Tuesday, and new infections also remain near record highs in Osaka and its neighboring prefectures. The spike in infections in urban Japan has spurred fears in less-populated prefectures that tourists will spread the virus to areas that have been relatively unaffected. Recent polls, therefore, show that the public is virtually unanimous in wanting the tourism campaign delayed and suggest that growing majorities may favor a new state of emergency declaration for at least some regions.

The upshot is that Abe faces new obstacles to his pursuit of a snap election that is the most potent tool for bolstering his authority. Opposition party lawmakers have demanded that the government explain its stop-start approach to launching the tourism program and voiced concerns about case numbers. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is once again taking a more aggressive approach than the government, calling for Tokyoites to avoid unnecessary outings over the upcoming four-day weekend. The public overwhelmingly sees little need for an early election – preferring that the government focus on public health and economic revival – and Shigeru Ishiba and Fumio Kishida, the leading candidates to succeed Abe, as well as junior coalition partner Komeito have been vocal in their opposition to a snap election. These obstacles may not be insurmountable, but ultimately Abe’s fate depends on convincing the public that he is in control of the fast-changing crisis. For now, polls suggest that the public is unconvinced.