FUKUOKA – Tourism has become the backbone of Okinawa’s economy.
The visitor count to the prefecture, with its subtropical climate and rich natural environment, grew nearly tenfold from 560,000 in fiscal 1972 to 5.52 million last year. This is thanks in large part to promotional campaigns run by airlines as well as the floodlights cast by television dramas trained on the island paradise.
But while on the surface it may look like tourism has been steadily expanding, Okinawa is now at a critical juncture.
Ninety-five percent of all visitors to Okinawa come from other parts of Japan. Local officials are concerned that many of these domestic visitors are going to be eyeing other destinations, such as South Korea and Hawaii, because the continuing strength of the yen against other key currencies is making overseas travel much more affordable.
Against this backdrop, prefectural officials have been stepping up efforts to draw tourists from outside Japan, mainly from Asia, and are also tapping new resources to get Japanese to keep coming back.
Wedding services are one way local officials and businesses are focusing on to lure foreign visitors.
In late April, Bridal House Tutu Okinawa, a wedding planner in Naha, arranged a wedding for a couple from Hong Kong — Wu Kuo-tung and Chen Meng-chih, both 31 — at a chapel by the emerald sea in a resort in the village of Kunigami.
The couple said they were looking for a place surrounded by nature and found the ceremony moving. Of note to the tourist industry, they brought along numerous relatives.
Bridal House Tutu Okinawa says inquiries from abroad have been increasing since about 2½ years ago.
Another planner, Chiyoda Bridal House, located in Chatan, says about 80 percent of foreign wedding guests want to be photographed by the sea. It is planning to open a new building combining a chapel and a photo studio to meet this demand.
The prefectural government has meanwhile been keen on sending staff to promote Okinawa at tourism exhibitions whenever they are held abroad.
They are also hoping multiple-visit visas issued since last July for Chinese nationals visiting Okinawa on their first trip to Japan will be a booster. This new visa requires travelers to stay at least one night in Okinawa Prefecture on their first stays.
China’s Hainan Airlines opened a service linking Beijing and Naha the same time the new visa was launched.
In fiscal 2011, foreign visitors hit a record 300,000 at a time when the prefecture’s overall visitor count dropped 3.1 percent from a year earlier, mainly owing to the impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which discouraged many people in Japan from traveling anywhere.
The prefecture is still host to the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, but some assets have been returned to locals, and at least some of them have been used to attract tourists.
One such example is American Village, a shopping mall complex in Chatan with a variety of shops. Featuring music and other attractions, it serves as a magnet for young people.
One visitor, a 23-year-old nursing home worker from Yokohama, said, “I wanted to enjoy what an American atmosphere is like.”
It was one of the major development projects spawned after the return of some land by the U.S. military in 1981. Residential areas have also been built around it. The town’s population rose by 40 percent between 1985, when the home construction started, and 2008.
The mall was initially built for locals but is now listed in many guidebooks and draws people from outside the prefecture looking for interesting shopping facilities and restaurants.
A town official said it was an unintended consequence that produced a happy ending.
“It has come to be known as a tourist spot,” the official said.
The U.S. military, once a bigger source of revenue for the prefecture, has been eclipsed by tourism.
In fiscal 2010, the prefecture earned ¥403.3 billion from tourism, up from ¥32.4 billion just after the reversion 40 years ago. Revenue generated by the military comes to a little more than ¥200 billion.
Yet Moritatsu Higa, a senior researcher at Ryugin Research Institute, affiliated with the local Bank of the Ryukyus, points out that Okinawa has some hurdles to overcome if it wants to become a world-class resort area.
The prefecture “is not fully equipped to receive visitors,” he says. “It’s necessary to speed up enhancements in infrastructure such as airport facilities. We lack human resources as well.”
He adds that for Japanese visitors, Okinawa needs to offer activity options in winter or when it rains.
The prefecture has set a target of 10 million tourists in fiscal 2021, including 2 million foreigners.
Achieving these goals would mean a projected ¥1 trillion in tourism revenue. For fiscal 2010, the prefectural government estimates around 80 percent of all tourists were repeat visitors, with many of them individual travelers.