National | OKINAWA BEAT

Cruise liner influx overwhelming Miyakojima’s economy

The Okinawa Times

Amid rising hopes for economic growth, Japan’s tourism boom has exposed the need for regional authorities to develop infrastructure and help secure the manpower needed to deal with the influx of foreign tourists.

Miyakojima in Okinawa is one of those struggling tourist destinations. As a growing number of cruise ships arrive from abroad, the island’s government and business circles are struggling to address such issues as the limited capacity of its port and the lack of taxi drivers.

Miyakojima received 85 port calls from cruise ships in the first seven months of fiscal 2016 starting in April, well above the 14 logged the previous year. The passenger tally meanwhile surged to a record of 123,578 in the same period, eclipsing the 11,023 logged the previous year, according to authorities in Hirara port.

Chinese account for a large portion of the total, a development seen throughout Japan as incomes climb with its giant, expanding economy.

But the port’s limited capacity is proving to be a nuisance. The berths at Hirara port can accept ships as large as 50,000 tons. Heavier vessels must anchor offshore, forcing passengers to come ashore by boat. Around 30 percent of the cruise ships calling at Miyakojima this year have been forced to stay offshore, requiring as long as two hours in some cases for everyone to disembark.

The Miyakojima Municipal Government is building a new berth that can accept 70,000-ton ships that is expected to open in March 2021. But it might not be enough.

“Cruise ships are becoming bigger and bigger. Now there are 220,000-ton vessels,” said Masahiko Teruya, engineering chief of the Okinawa general bureau’s Hirara port office. “We expect to see more 100,000-ton or bigger ships in Miyakojima.”

The city is also upgrading its port management plans with an eye to accommodating vessels as large as 200,000 tons.

“As ships are expected to become bigger, we cannot stick to our current method of having (oversized vessels) anchor offshore,” said Moriyuki Ikei, head of Miyakojima’s port management division. The city aims to swiftly improve the port in cooperation with the central government, Ikei said.

Securing transport for tourists is another source of concern.

On Aug. 24, taxis suddenly vanished from the downtown area and Miyako Airport as the drivers rushed to deal with a surge in passengers at Hirara port caused by two cruise ships that were calling at the same time to escape a typhoon.

The unusual event caused around 4,100 passengers, two or three times more than usual, to land at the same time, paralyzing transportation.

Residents and incoming airline passengers were unable to find cabs, and taxi companies were swamped by complaints.

“We want to respond by operating more taxis, but we cannot find drivers,” said Kashiko Sunakawa, secretary-general of the association of taxi operators in Miyakojima. “Our industry is suffering a chronic labor shortage.”

But the manpower problem is not just limited to the taxi industry. It is causing headaches at retailers, restaurants and hotels caught up by an unprecedented tourism boom.

The higher availability of jobs on Miyakojima is making it easier for workers to hop around to seek higher pay.

“Some taxi drivers have quit and started driving large trucks for better pay amid the port’s construction boom,” Sunakawa said.

Although key issues remain unresolved, visitors from cruise ships are expected to start rising again when the island’s tourism season begins in April.

“We need to accurately grasp what problems are and address them individually,” said an official at the Okinawa general bureau’s Miyakojima transportation office.

This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major daily in the prefecture. The original article was published on Nov. 24.