Japan to lift COVID-19 restrictions on foreign tourists from October

Tourists who come to Japan will enjoy a weak yen, which has plummeted so low against the dollar that the finance ministry on Thursday intervened for the first time since 1998. (AFP)
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Updated 23 September 2022

Japan to lift COVID-19 restrictions on foreign tourists from October

  • Japan, along with China, has been a holdout in continuing tough restrictions on visitors
  • But unlike China, Japan never imposed a strict lockdown during the crisis

NEW YORK: Japan announced Thursday that it will lift tough COVID-19 restrictions on foreign tourists, reopening the borders after two and a half years.
Speaking at the New York Stock Exchange, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the pandemic had interrupted the free flow of people, goods and capital that had helped the nation flourish.
“But from October 11, Japan will relax border control measures to be on par with the US, as well as resume visa-free travel and individual travel,” said Kishida, who is in the city for the United Nations General Assembly.
Japan, along with China, has been a holdout in continuing tough restrictions on visitors, as much of the world has moved on from the pandemic.
But unlike China, Japan never imposed a strict lockdown during the crisis.
Tourists who come to Japan will enjoy a weak yen, which has plummeted so low against the dollar that the finance ministry intervened in the currency market Thursday for the first time since 1998.
The return of the visa-waiver program suspended in March 2020 will restore the ease of access that saw a record 31.9 million foreign visitors to the country in 2019.
Since June, Japan has allowed tourists to visit in groups accompanied by guides, a requirement that was further relaxed to include self-guided package tours.
The cautious approach to reopening has been deliberate, said James Brady, Japan analysis lead at US-based consultancy Teneo.
Kishida “took office a year ago knowing that perceived mishandling of the pandemic had been a key factor in undermining public confidence” in his predecessor’s government, Brady said.
“He has been extremely careful not to repeat those mistakes.”
Japan has recorded around 42,600 coronavirus deaths in total — a vastly lower rate than many other countries — and 90 percent of residents aged 65 and over have had three vaccine shots.
There is no law requiring people to wear masks, but they are still near-ubiquitous in public places like trains and shops, with many Japanese willing to sport masks when ill even before the pandemic.
On the streets of Tokyo, members of the public hailed the announcement.
“I think it’s a good thing to gradually bring foreign tourists back here,” said Michio Kano, 76, who runs a bar.
He called for the move to be followed by a loosening of anti-COVID-19 rules.
“You can’t soften the rules on one side for foreigners and still say to the Japanese, ‘Don’t do this or that’,” he said.
Katsunori Mukai, 28, said Japan should welcome tourists as long as there are no surges in cases.
“It’s true that here we still have the culture of wearing masks and other things but I think that if there is no serious danger of catching a serious disease in general, people can come as many times as they want,” he said.
While the return of mass tourism should give a “slight bump” to Japan’s economy, the benefits are likely to be limited by China’s zero-COVID-19 policy, Brady, the analyst, said.
“Much of the economic benefit pre-pandemic came from high numbers of Chinese visitors coming and spending lots of money on tech products (and) cosmetics,” he explained.
But “currently, Chinese citizens face their own travel restrictions at home and won’t be traveling to Japan in large numbers.”
There is pent-up demand for travel to the country, however, according to Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights for travel analytics firm ForwardKeys.
“Searches for travel to Japan reached their highest point this year at the end of August,” and while flight bookings were just 16 percent of 2019 levels in early September, “we’d expect bookings to jump” when the visa rules are scrapped, Ponti said.
Demand from Europe may still be subdued “due to the increase in the cost of living in Europe caused by the Russian-Ukraine crisis plus the rising fuel costs driving up air travel costs,” said Liz Ortiguera, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association.


Women protesters demand more security after Afghan bombing

Updated 58 min 19 sec ago

Women protesters demand more security after Afghan bombing

  • The demonstration was quickly broken up by Taliban police
  • The bomber struck an education center Friday packed with hundreds of students in a Shiite neighborhood

KABUL, Afghanistan: A group of Afghan women Saturday protested a suicide bombing that killed or wounded dozens of students in a Shiite education center in the capital Kabul a day earlier, demanding better security from the Taliban-run government.
The demonstration was quickly broken up by Taliban police.
The bomber struck an education center Friday packed with hundreds of students in a Shiite neighborhood, killing 19 people and wounding 27. Among the casualties were teenagers taking practice university entrance exams, a Taliban spokesman said.
The morning explosion at the center took place in Kabul’s Dashti Barchi neighborhood, an area populated mostly by ethnic Hazaras, who belong to Afghanistan’s minority Shiite community. The Daesh group has carried out repeated, horrific attacks on schools, hospitals and mosques in Dashti Barchi and other Shiite areas in recent years.
About 20 protesters Saturday gathered in the Dashti Barchi area for about 45 minutes before their rally was broken up by Taliban security. They carried banners in English and Dari reading “Stop Hazar Genocide.”
“We are asking the Taliban government, when they claim that they have brought security, how they cannot stop an attacker from entering an educational center to target female students. In this incident, one family has lost four members, why is it still happening,” said demonstrator Fatima Mohammadi.
Staff at the Kaaj education center spent Saturday cleaning up the wreckage caused by the attack, while victims’ family members searched through items covered with blood belonging to their loved ones.
Hussain, who goes by one name, witnessed the attack. He said he believed the death toll was significantly higher, based on the large number of bodies he saw.
“First the attacker just over there, where a huge crowd of students was standing, opened fire. At least 40 people were killed there,” he said.
Zahra, a student who survived the attack, was unharmed because she went out just minutes before to buy a pen. She said she lost her friends in the attack and also her hope for a better future.
“I am not even sure if there is a future for us anymore or not,” she said.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. The Daesh group — the chief rival of the Taliban since their takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 — has in the past targeted the Hazara community, including in Dashti Barchi, in a brutal campaign of violence.
Militants have carried out several deadly attacks in Dashti Barchi, including a horrific 2020 attack on a maternity hospital claimed by IS that killed 24 people, including newborn babies and mothers.


At least 20 killed in Russian shelling of convoy in late Sept, Kyiv says

Updated 01 October 2022

At least 20 killed in Russian shelling of convoy in late Sept, Kyiv says

  • Seven vehicles were hit in shelling between occupied Svatove in Luhansk region and Ukrainian-held Kupiansk
  • The SBU published graphic images of destroyed civilian vehicles

KYIV: Ukraine’s SBU security service said on Saturday at least 20 civilians were killed in the Russian shelling of a civilian convoy in late September in an eastern “grey zone” between Russian-controlled and Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Seven vehicles were hit in shelling between occupied Svatove in Luhansk region and Ukrainian-held Kupiansk which Kyiv recaptured in the Kharkiv region last month, the SBU said in a statement.
The SBU published graphic images of destroyed civilian vehicles on a track next to a railway line and what appeared to be the charred remains of people. Two bodies were seated in the driving seats of their cars; one was holding the steering wheel.
Russian-installed officials in Ukraine’s east accused Kyiv on Thursday of shelling a convoy of refugees being evacuated from the Kharkiv region and killing around 30 civilians, Russian state media reported.
It was not immediately clear if those officials were referring to the same convoy.
Reuters could not independently verify the allegations.


UK train strikes and energy hikes add to a week of turmoil

Updated 01 October 2022

UK train strikes and energy hikes add to a week of turmoil

  • Only about 11% of train services were expected to operate across the UK on Saturday
  • Consumers were also hit with a jump in their energy bills Saturday

LONDON: Trains in Britain all but ground to a halt Saturday as coordinated strikes by rail workers added to a week of turmoil caused by soaring energy prices and unfunded tax cuts that roiled financial markets.
Only about 11 percent of train services were expected to operate across the UK on Saturday, according to Network Rail. Unions said they called the latest in a series of one-day strikes to demand that wage increases keep pace with inflation that is expected to peak at around 11 percent this month.
Consumers were also hit with a jump in their energy bills Saturday as the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushes gas and electricity prices higher. Household bills are expected to rise by about 20 percent, even after the government stepped in to cap prices.
Prime Minister Liz Truss, who has been in office less than a month, cited the cost-of-living crisis as the reason she moved swiftly to introduce a controversial economic stimulus program, which includes 45 billion pounds ($48 billion) of unfunded tax cuts.
Concern that the plans would push government debt to unsustainable levels sent the pound tumbling to a record low against the dollar this week and forced the Bank of England to intervene in the bond market.
“We need to get things done in this country more quickly,” Truss said in an unapologetic column for The Sun newspaper published Saturday. “So I am going to do things differently. It involves difficult decisions and does involve disruption in the short term.”
Many workers aren’t convinced.
Four labor unions have called three, 24-hour strikes over the next eight days, ensuring service disruptions for much of the week.
The timing is of particular concern for runners and fans trying to get to the capital for Sunday’s London Marathon, with is expected to attract 42,000 competitors.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union, said the strikes were designed to target the annual conference of Truss’s Conservative Party, which begins Sunday in Birmingham, England.
“We don’t want to inconvenience the public, and we’re really sorry that that’s happening,’’ Lynch said. “But the government has brought this dispute on. They (put) the challenges down to us, to cut our jobs, to cut our pensions and to cut our wages against inflation.”
Lynch urged Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan to take “urgent steps to allow a negotiated settlement.” The union said the latest figures showed railway bosses benefiting from government tax cuts.
As a result of the strike, there will be no service between London and major cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle on Saturday. Lingering disruptions are likely to effect service on Sunday morning as well.
Runners and spectators traveling to London for the marathon, which begins at 9:30 a.m., have been warned they are likely to be frustrated by the strike.
“It is particularly disheartening that this weekend’s strike will hit the plans of thousands of runners who have trained for months to take part in the iconic London Marathon,’’ said Daniel Mann, director of industry operations at Rail Delivery Group. “That will also punish the many charities, large and small, who depend on sponsorship money raised by such events to support the most vulnerable in our community.”


Iranian city goes into blackout after IRGC intelligence chief killed in clashes

Updated 01 October 2022

Iranian city goes into blackout after IRGC intelligence chief killed in clashes

  • At least 36 people believed to have died when security forces opened fire on demonstrators
  • Protests broke out in Zahedan after an outcry over the rape of a 15-year-old girl

QUETTA: Communication services were down in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan on Saturday, after a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander was killed in clashes.  

Protests broke out in the capital of the Sistan and Balochistan province bordering Pakistan on Friday after an outcry over the rape of a 15-year-old Baloch girl, allegedly by a local military commander.

Ali Mousavi, IRGC intelligence chief of Sistan and Balochistan, was shot during the confrontation with protesters. The IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency reported he was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Residents of southeast Iran's Zahedan city tend to a wounded person after police shot at protesters on Sept. 30, 2022. (Photo courtesy: Muhammad Asif)

The killing was claimed by the Jaish Al-Adl militant group, which says it is fighting for the independence of Sistan and Baluchistan and greater rights for Baloch people, who are the main ethnic group in the province.

Footage emerging from Zahedan showed people carrying dead and wounded protesters amid heavy gunfire. The provincial administration said 19 people have died in the clashes. Local news agency Haal-e Vash reported the number of deaths to be at least 36, with dozens of others wounded.  

The internet has been blocked and mobile networks largely shut down in the city and surrounding areas since Friday, data from watchdog Netblocks shows, with residents of neighboring towns saying they have been unable to reach their relatives.

Mohammad Zia, a shopkeeper in Taftan, a city on Iran’s border with Pakistan, some 90 km from Zahedan, told Arab News that in some parts of the town weak mobile signals could be caught.

“But the internet services are still suspended in the entire Sistan and Balochistan region,” he said.

Muhammad Asif, who lives in Nokundi, a nearby town on the Pakistani side of the border, said he received disturbing footage from the deadly clashes in Zahedan on Friday and has since been unable to contact his family there.

“I have been constantly trying to contact my cousin who traveled there for business,” he said. “Due to the internet and mobile network blackout I am unable to contact him, which increases my worries.”

The death of the provincial IRGC intelligence chief is a major escalation in the antigovernment demonstrations that began in mid-September, triggered by the death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, in the custody of Iranian morality police.

The country-wide rallies have been the largest manifestation of dissent against the Iranian government in over a decade.

As of Friday, at least 83 protesters have been killed by security forces, mainly in the provinces of Mazandaran, Gilan, Western Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, Kurdistan, Alborz, and the capital Tehran, according to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights organization.

Thousands of demonstrators and civil activists have been arrested.

The toll is likely to increase with the Sistan and Balochistan casualties.


Powerful earthquake shakes Indonesia’s Sumatra, kills 1

Updated 01 October 2022

Powerful earthquake shakes Indonesia’s Sumatra, kills 1

JAKARTA: A strong and shallow earthquake shook Indonesia’s Sumatra island on Saturday, killing a resident, injuring 11 and damaging more than a a dozen houses and buildings, police said.
The magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck about 40 kilometers (24.8 miles) northeast of Sibolga, a coastal city in North Sumatra province, according to the US Geological Survey. It was 13 kilometers (8 miles) deep.
The pre-dawn earthquake was followed by two 5.0 magnitude aftershocks.
A 62-year-old man died of a heart attack while fleeing to safety in Tarutung village, which is closest to the epicenter, said local police chief Johanson Sianturi. Eleven people have been injured and at least 15 houses and buildings damaged in the village, he said.
Authorities were still investigating the full extent of the damage.
A footage released by the National Disaster Mitigation Agency showed several residents evacuating an injured person by a van to a hospital while panicked voices cried for help. The agency also showed several people receiving treatment and walls cracked by the earthquake.
Indonesia, a vast archipelago of more than 270 million people, is frequently struck by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis because of its location on the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.
In February, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake killed at least 25 people and injured more than 460 in West Sumatra province. In January 2021, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake killed more than 100 people and injured nearly 6,500 in West Sulawesi province.
A powerful Indian Ocean quake and tsunami in 2004 killed nearly 230,000 people in a dozen countries, most of them in Indonesia.