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

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 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.


UN Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance to hold forum on blended finance

UN Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance to hold forum on blended finance
Updated 16 sec ago

UN Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance to hold forum on blended finance

UN Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance to hold forum on blended finance
  • Blended finance structures will help mobilize climate capital toward emerging markets, developing economies: Alliance

GENEVA: The UN-convened Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance will hold a high-level forum on the potential of blended finance aims, the Emirates News Agency reported.

It follows the publication Call on Policymakers to facilitate the scaling of blended finance structures to fund climate solutions in order to meet the terms of the Paris Agreement on climate change, and UN sustainable development goals.

The agenda will include a keynote address by UN Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Climate Action Selwin Hart.

The alliance, signed by UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance Mark Carney and UN High-Level Climate Action Champion Nigel Topping, noted that blended finance structures would help to mobilize climate capital toward emerging markets and developing economies.

Given their experience and expertise, particularly in EMDEs, as well as their higher risk tolerance and official development mandates, multilateral development banks and development finance institutions have significant potential to mobilize private capital through blended finance.

By collaborating with Convergence (the global network for blended finance) and establishing dialogue with members of the Coalition of Finance Ministers for Climate Action, the alliance hopes to contribute to the implementation of the highlighted solutions.

Massive capital mobilization into EMDEs is possible only if donors, development banks, and private-sector financiers work together to effect systemic change in how private capital is deployed in climate and SDGs finance.


Ukraine says key eastern town of Lyman ‘cleared’ of Russian troops

Ukraine says key eastern town of Lyman ‘cleared’ of Russian troops
Updated 9 min 11 sec ago

Ukraine says key eastern town of Lyman ‘cleared’ of Russian troops

Ukraine says key eastern town of Lyman ‘cleared’ of Russian troops
  • The recapture of Lyman marks the first Ukrainian military victory in territory that the Kremlin has claimed as its own
  • President Volodymyr Zelensky pledged to retake more areas in the country’s eastern Donbas region within the week

MYKOLAIVKA, Ukraine: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said Sunday that Lyman, a key town located in one of the four Ukrainian regions that Russia annexed, was “cleared” of Moscow’s troops.
The latest development — a feature of Ukraine’s weeks-long counteroffensive against Moscow’s invasion — comes as Russia pushed forward with finalizing the annexation of captured Ukrainian territories despite condemnation from Kyiv and the West.
The recapture of Lyman — which Moscow’s forces pummelled for weeks to control this spring — marks the first Ukrainian military victory in territory that the Kremlin has claimed as its own and has vowed to defend by all possible means.
“As of 12:30 p.m. (0930 GMT) Lyman is completely cleared. Thank you to our military!” Zelensky said in a video posted on social media.
Ukraine’s army said it had entered Lyman on Saturday, prompting Moscow to announce the “withdrawal” of its troops from the town toward “more favorable lines.”
“Now I am optimistic and very motivated. I see the activity on the front line, and how foreign weapons... help us take our lands back,” a 33-year-old Ukrainian solider, who uses the nom de guerre “Smoke,” told AFP after returning from near Lyman.
In a video address late on Saturday, Zelensky pledged to retake more areas in the country’s eastern Donbas region within the week.
With Russian losses mounting, experts have warned that President Vladimir Putin could turn to nuclear weapons to defend territory — an option floated by a Putin ally.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said Saturday that Russia should consider using “low-yield nuclear weapons” after Moscow’s troops were forced out of Lyman.
Putin staged a grand Kremlin ceremony on Friday to celebrate the annexation of the four Ukrainian territories: Donetsk, Kherson, Lugansk and Zaporizhzhia, following referendums denounced as void by Kyiv and its allies.
Despite condemnation from the West, Russia’s Constitutional Court on Sunday recognized as lawful the annexation accords signed by Putin with the Moscow-backed leaders of the four Ukrainian territories.
The annexation treaties will be considered by Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, on Monday, according to Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin.
The four territories create a crucial land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, also annexed by Moscow, in 2014.
Together the five regions make up around 20 percent of Ukraine.
Kyiv has also called for the immediate release of the chief of the Moscow-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, condemning his “illegal detention” by the Russians.
Ihor Murashov was leaving the plant Friday when he was detained and “driven in an unknown direction” while blindfolded, Ukraine’s nuclear agency Energoatom has said.
In a statement from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), its chief Rafael Grossi said Murashov’s detention was cause for “grave concern.”
Grossi is expected to travel to Kyiv and Moscow “next week,” the UN agency added.
Zaporizhzhia — Europe’s largest nuclear energy facility — has been at the center of tensions, with Moscow and Kyiv accusing each other of strikes on and near the plant, raising fears of an atomic disaster.
Following the annexations, Washington announced “severe” new sanctions against Russian officials and the defense industry, and said G7 allies support imposing “costs” on any nation backing annexation.
Zelensky urged the US-led military alliance NATO to grant his country fast-track membership.
He also vowed never to hold talks with Russia as long as Putin was in power.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg slammed the annexation as “illegal and illegitimate” but remained non-committal after Ukraine said it was applying to join the Western alliance.
Turkey said Saturday Russia’s annexation was a “grave violation of the established principles of international law.”
Despite Putin’s warnings prior to the annexation that he could use nuclear weapons to defend the captured territories, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv would “continue liberating our land and our people.”


Australian government gears up Syrian prison rescue plan

Australian government gears up Syrian prison rescue plan
Updated 02 October 2022

Australian government gears up Syrian prison rescue plan

Australian government gears up Syrian prison rescue plan
  • Women, children suffer malnutrition, frostbite, violence in northeastern Syrian camps

LONDON: The Australian government is set to rescue dozens of Australian women and children detained in Syrian prison camps, the Guardian reported.

More than 20 Australian women and at least 40 children are stuck in the Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps in northeastern Syria. The camps, being managed by the Syrian Democratic Forces, hold the wives, widows, and children of Daesh fighters defeated by the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria.

Many of their husbands have been killed by the coalition and its partners in the region, and some have been jailed. Canberra is now set to recover more than 20 of those still in the region. The dozens set to be repatriated will be mostly children, but officials told the Guardian that the rescue operation would take several months.

Most of the children are aged under six and several were born in the camps to widowed wives of the fighters.

The next mission will be the first time that the Australian government has attempted to repatriate citizens from the camps since 2019, when it launched a secret rescue operation to recover eight orphans, including a pregnant teenager.

The government has consistently claimed that security risks prevented any fresh attempts, but government sources told the Guardian that a rescue mission was now on the way.

A spokesperson for Clare O’Neil, Australia’s home affairs minister, told Guardian Australia on Sunday: “The Australian government’s overriding priority is the protection of Australians and Australia’s national interest, informed by national security advice. Given the sensitive nature of the matters involved, it would not be appropriate to comment further.”

Forty-four children and several Australian widows are held in Al-Roj camp, which is closer to the Iraqi border than the more dangerous Al-Hol camp, where shootings have taken place and illness is rife. More than 100 murders were reported in Al-Hol camp in the 18 months leading up to June.

The SDF, a predominantly Kurdish force, last month arrested more than 300 Daesh fighters inside the camp. Its troops seized weapons and freed at least six women who were living as slaves, chained under the control of their captors. One of the women had been living in captivity since 2014, when she was just nine years old.

The Australian push to repatriate citizens comes after several other Western nations adopted similar plans.

The Guardian said that Germany had repatriated 91 citizens, France, 86, and the US, 26. Kazakhstan had recovered 700 of its citizens, with Russia and Kosovo both repatriating more than 200 each.

The US has urged Canberra to conduct repatriations amid reports of troubling conditions that the children have endured. In July, Sydney-born teenager Yusuf Zahab died of unknown causes. He had tuberculosis and was begging for support in January amid Daesh attacks on a prison. He was aged 11 when taken to Syria against his will by his family, of which a dozen joined Daesh.

Reports of malnutrition and frostbite suffered by Australian children were heard in 2020, and 2021.

UN experts said plans to repatriate women and children were “entirely feasible.”

In a joint statement, they said: “The government of Australia has the capacity to do so. Many other governments are currently doing it. Australia has an advanced child welfare, education, criminal justice, and health system which is eminently capable of addressing the needs of these children and their mothers.

“Failure to repatriate is an abdication of Australia’s treaty obligations and their deeper moral obligations to protect Australia’s most vulnerable children.”

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the Guardian that “appallingly harsh conditions” in Al-Hol were worsening.

“The children here have less food, clean water, health care, and education than international standards call for. They are endlessly exposed to dangers, and their rights are ignored. A lack of attention is not an excuse to forget the women and children here.

“We welcome the efforts that have been made to repatriate women and children back to their home countries. But this camp remains the shame of the international community,” he said.


Swiss police violently disperse anti-Iran protest at embassy

Swiss police violently disperse anti-Iran protest at embassy
Updated 02 October 2022

Swiss police violently disperse anti-Iran protest at embassy

Swiss police violently disperse anti-Iran protest at embassy
  • Two men climbed over the embassy’s fence, in Bern, and pulled down the Iranian flag
  • Police said they used rubber bullets after several other protesters tried to follow the two men

BERLIN: Swiss police used rubber bullets to disperse protesters in front of the Iranian Embassy in Bern after two men climbed over the embassy’s fence and pulled down the Iranian flag from a flagpole in the yard.
Police said late Saturday that nobody was injured and that the “large crowd” of protesters was dispersed after the use of rubber bullets. The two protesters who entered the embassy’s grounds were detained, according to police in the Swiss capital.
Police said they used rubber bullets after several other protesters at the unauthorized demonstration tried following the two men who had first entered the embassy’s yard and also attempted to access the premises.
It wasn’t immediately clear if more protesters were detained.
Thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets over the last two weeks in protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been detained by the morality police in the capital, Tehran, for allegedly wearing her mandatory Islamic headscarf too loosely.
Outside of Iran, thousands of protesters have also staged demonstrations in European countries and elsewhere over the death of Amini. They’ve also expressed anger over the treatment of women and wider repression in the Islamic Republic.


King Charles III won’t attend COP27, Buckingham Palace confirms

King Charles III won’t attend COP27, Buckingham Palace confirms
Updated 02 October 2022

King Charles III won’t attend COP27, Buckingham Palace confirms

King Charles III won’t attend COP27, Buckingham Palace confirms
  • Had been talks over whether Charles could play a role in the climate conference in a different way

LONDON: King Charles III will not travel to next month’s COP27 climate summit in Egypt, Buckingham Palace has confirmed.

A report released late on Saturday said the decision came after UK Prime Minister Liz Truss “objected” to the avid environmentalist monarch attending.

Britain’s new monarch, who took the throne after his mother Queen Elizabeth II died last month, had intended to deliver a speech at the November 6-18 gathering, the Sunday Times reported.

But the plan was reportedly axed after Truss opposed it during a personal audience with Charles at Buckingham Palace last month and on the advice of Number 10 advisers.

However, Sky News reported that palace sources said any suggestion of disagreement between the new monarch and prime minister was “categorically untrue” and that the decision was “agreed in consultation.”

A Number 10 source told Sky News: “The idea the prime minister gives orders to the King is ridiculous.”

And according to the Sky report, there have been talks over whether Charles could play a role in the climate conference in a different way.

The decision comes amid speculation Britain’s new leader, already under fire over her economic plans which have sparked market turmoil, could controversially scale back the country’s climate change commitments.

Her newly assembled cabinet contains a number of ministers who have expressed skepticism about the so-called 2050 net zero goals, while Truss herself is seen as less enthusiastic about the policy than predecessor Boris Johnson.

The Sunday Times said she is unlikely to attend COP27 — the 27th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Britain hosted the last summit in the Scottish city Glasgow, when Charles, the late queen and his son William all addressed the event.

The newspaper said the episode was “likely to fuel tensions” between Charles and Truss, but cited a government source who claimed the audience had been “cordial” and there had “not been a row.”

Meanwhile, a royal source told the paper: “It is no mystery that the king was invited to go there.

“He had to think very carefully about what steps to take for his first overseas tour, and he is not going to be attending COP(27).”

Both Downing Street and Buckingham Palace declined to comment on the Times report.

Under convention in Britain, all overseas official visits by members of the royal family are undertaken in accordance with advice from the government.

However, despite not attending in person, reports said the king still hopes to be able to contribute in some form to the conference.

Charles III is a committed environmentalist with a long history of campaigning for better conservation, organic farming and tackling climate change.

* With AFP