Blue skies, blue seas and pure white sandy beaches — a subtropical paradise and coral delight for divers.

Okinawa’s exotic isles draw millions of tourists every year.

Tourism has long been a key industry since the prefecture’s reversion from U.S. rule in 1972. But it was not necessarily the Okinawa government’s priority as it pursued economic development over the past three decades.

Okinawa is now putting more emphasis on tourism, making promotion of the industry a top economic policy goal.

Although last year’s terrorist attacks in the United States temporarily pushed down the number of visitors to Okinawa, the rate is now recovering, local officials and people in tourism say.

The prefecture is now preparing a new economic development plan for the next 10 years, shifting its focus from promotion of primary and manufacturing industries to tourism.

Some people say the shift reflects a recent rise in Okinawan pride in and awareness of its cultural identity, as well as rapid growth in revenues from tourists flocking from the mainland to the prefecture’s resort islands.

Okinawa previously emphasized development of the manufacturing industry because it generates more added value than tourism, said Norikazu Higa of the prefecture’s industry coordination section.

“The manufacturing industry has made a lot of efforts, but it has not grown as expected,” Higa said. “Now we’ve decided to further build up the growing (tourism) industry.”

According to the prefecture, sales of oil products, Okinawa’s major industrial items shipped outside the prefecture, dropped from 121 billion yen in fiscal 1985 to 90.1 billion yen in fiscal 1999.

The share of oil products in Okinawa’s ordinary revenues from outside the prefecture fell from 10 percent to 4.6 percent over that period.

During the same period, on the other hand, money from the tourism industry more than doubled, from 227.1 billion yen to 474.7 billion yen, accounting for 24.4 percent of the prefecture’s total revenue from outside.

The latest 10-year program, unveiled in May and awaiting approval this month by a national government council, no longer advocates Okinawa “catching up” with the mainland. It instead calls for utilization of “comparative advantages” unique to Okinawa, such as its rich nature and proximity to other parts of Asia.

“Once we tried to catch up with the mainland, and we always looked in Tokyo’s direction,” said Yoshiro Shimoji, an official at the prefecture’s tourism promotion bureau.

“But now we are very confident in things Okinawan. The situation is probably greatly different from seven or eight years ago,” he said.

Since the reversion 30 years ago, one major item on Okinawan’s agenda was to close the gap with mainland Japan. The prefecture has suffered high unemployment and an income level much lower than the national average.

But many Okinawans say their confidence in their home has greatly improved over the past decade, as their culture — distinctly different from the rest of Japan — became popular on the mainland as well as with local youths.

Several pop singers and groups from Okinawa, including Namie Amuro and SPEED, became top national stars in the 1990s. Many young musicians also started finding success playing songs combining traditional Okinawan music and rock.

The recent popular NHK TV drama “Chura-san,” featuring life in Okinawa, also boosted tourism from the mainland.

Kimio Chinen, chief executive and president of local venture Lequios Airline Co., said the mind-set of many Okinawan people has changed from “how to catch up with the mainland” to “how to take advantage of our own characteristics.”

Bolstering the growing confidence in Okinawa’s culture and the tourism industry are the increasing revenues from mainland tourists despite intensifying competition with overseas destinations.

In the mid-1980s, the local tour industry seriously worried about competition with Hawaii and Guam, as the yen’s value sharply rose, making overseas tours cheaper for Japanese.

But despite the explosion of overseas tourism, Okinawa has continued to be a popular destination for mainlanders. The number of visitors consistently increased throughout the 1990s, hitting a peak of 4.56 million in 1999.

Hiroshi Shimose, manager of domestic sales planning and marketing at Japan Airlines Co.’s passenger sales arm JAL Sales Network Co., said Okinawa-bound travelers are different from those going to Guam or Hawaii, who, especially young women, are mainly interested in duty-free shopping.

Travelers going to Okinawa seek to stay at a resort beach, he said.

Recently, package tours to Hawaii and Guam have drastically fallen in price as competition intensified among the travel and airline industries. But with its high-quality accommodations facilities, Okinawa has been sufficiently competitive and largely unaffected, Shimose said.

To further promote tourism, the latest development plan by the prefecture calls for the creation of facilities that can meet the more diversified needs of visitors.

Currently, about 200,000 foreigners visit Okinawa a year, accounting for about 4.4 percent of all arrivals.

To capitalize on Okinawa’s proximity to other parts of Asia — 30 minutes by plane to Taiwan, for example — the prefecture is planning ad campaigns to lure visitors from Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, and upgrading port facilities to accommodate more cruise liners.

Okinawa is also preparing a model course of eco-tourism to encourage visitors to stay longer and take in the islands’ rich nature.

Okinawa’s longevity rate, the highest in the nation, is another drawing card. The prefecture has launched a study into how the local diet and other conditions benefit people suffering from illnesses in an attempt to promote the area as a health resort for the elderly.

But the tourism industry is not immune from emergencies overseas, as highlighted by the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The U.S. forces in Okinawa went on high alert and security around the bases was tightened, a development widely reported by the nation’s TV news programs.

Organizers of package tours to Okinawa, fearing the terrorist threat to airplanes as well as to the U.S. bases in Okinawa, rushed to cancel reservations.

According to the prefecture, at least 249,662 people in 2,130 groups canceled tours to Okinawa from October to mid-March.

In 2001, the total number of visitors dropped by 1.9 percent from the previous year to 4.43 million. Most of the decline was attributable to the cancellation of group tours, said Shimoji of the tourism promotion bureau.

It was the first significant fall in visitors in recent years, except a year earlier, when the 2000 Group of Eight summit was held in Nago. Tightened security and full booking of hotel rooms by summit participants discouraged mainlanders from coming.

Of the 249,662 people who canceled group tours, 198,306 were students planning to visit Okinawa on school-organized trips.

Fumihiko Kenmochi, research director at the Japan School Tours Bureau, a government-affiliated body specializing in research and coordination of school trips, said Japanese school principals have a group mentality, leaving the possibility always open of mass cancellations in the future.

“We received numerous phone inquiries from schools asking what other schools were doing (in reaction to the terrorist attacks). They always watch for the reaction of others,” he said.

But he also said that over the long term, Okinawa will become increasingly popular for school trips because more schools are now trying to let students study a single theme during a tour, rather than simply visiting old temples in cities like Kyoto and Nara.

In that sense, Okinawa, the site of a fierce ground battle in early 1945, is a perfect place for groups to think about the issue of war and peace, he said.

According to the Japan School Tours Bureau, Okinawa was not even among the top 12 destinations in 1991 for high school trips.

But in 1999, Okinawa was ranked No. 3, trailing only Hokkaido and Kyoto, as more and more schools have chosen the prefecture despite the high travel costs.

The Japan School Tours Bureau coordinates airline reservations for high schools in Saitama and Tokyo. Both areas have already seen an increase in school trips to Okinawa so far this year compared with the same period of 2001, Kenmochi said.

According to the Okinawa Prefectural Government, total arrivals have also fully recovered, numbering 1.57 million from January to April, up 2.5 percent from the same period a year earlier.

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