Foreign tourists visiting Japan will be required to wear masks and spend their entire stay chaperoned by local guides, as the country prepares to open up to international travellers after two years of Covid-19 border restrictions.

People who have waited patiently for the chance to visit Japan, which imposed some of the toughest travel restrictions during the pandemic, will also have to take out private medical insurance in case they contract the virus, the government said this week.

An important source of revenue before the Covid-19 pandemic began in early 2020, tourism will look very different when limited numbers of people are permitted to enter Japan from Friday.

Only visitors on package tours will be allowed in during the first phase, the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) said, adding that travel agency guides accompanying visitors must ensure that they wear masks.

That will be less of a problem for people from other Asian countries where mask-wearing has been widely accepted during the pandemic, but potentially problematic for those from countries that no longer have mask mandates and where their use generated political controversy.

“Tour guides should frequently remind tour participants of necessary infection prevention measures, including wearing and removing masks, at each stage of the tour,” the JTA said in its guidelines. “Even outdoors, the wearing of masks should continue in situations where people are conversing in close proximity.”

While Japan’s government has relaxed its guidance on mask-wearing, most people still wear face coverings, even outdoors. Visitors will be expected to cover up indoors and observe social distancing when they remove their masks outdoors.

“To resume inbound tourism, it is important that the places where tourists will be visiting are willing to accept them and feel safe,” the tourism minister, Tetsuo Saito, said, according to the Japan Times.

“If travel agencies and others comply with the guidelines, inbound tourism will resume smoothly and lead to a further increase in visitors.”

Entry will initially be restricted to people from 98 “low risk” countries, including the US, Britain, Australia, China, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand, according to the Kyodo news agency.

But they can expect to be chaperoned during throughout their trip, while travel agencies have been asked to draw up itineraries that avoid crowded places. Visitors who test positive for Covid-19 will be monitored at medical facilities until they are due to return home.

Japan last month conducted test tours of groups of about 50 people – most of whom were travel agents – with one participant testing positive for Covid-19.

James Jang, a travel agent from Australia who took part in one of the trial tours, said the rules could deter some people from planning a trip to Japan in the near future.

“Clients will be OK with wearing a mask indoors, but wearing them 24 hours is a hassle,” Jang said. “The cost of having a guide at all times may deter clients until later, when they have more flexibility.”

In response to criticism of Japan’s tough travel restrictions, the prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has said he wants the country’s borders to be as open as those of other G7 countries.

But it could be some time before Japan returns to the days of mass tourism, as visitors will be included in a 20,000 cap on daily arrivals for the time being.

The year before the pandemic began, almost 32 million people visited Japan, spending ¥4.81tn ($36.28bn), and the government had set a target of attracting 60 million visitors by 2030.

With Reuters