While Hawaii has long been one of the most popular go-to destinations for tourists from Japan, Okinawa has finally caught up to outshine the rival resort island chain.
For the first time, Okinawa overtook Hawaii in terms of tourist numbers last year, according to Okinawa Prefectural Government data released last month.
Tourists to Okinawa totaled 9,396,200 in 2017, up 9.1 percent from a year earlier, on the back of an increase in cruise trips making port calls from East Asia and new direct flights connecting Okinawa to other areas in Japan and abroad in recent years.
Meanwhile, tourists to Hawaii numbered 9,382,986 last year, up 5 percent from the previous year, according to data released by the Hawaii Tourism Authority on Jan. 31.
The latest figure for Okinawa — surpassing the 9 million mark for the first time and marking a record high for five years in a row — is welcome news for the local government and businesses, considering that its tourist turnout was only one-fifth that of Hawaii in 1972 when it was returned to Japan.
Cruise ships marked a record 515 port calls in 2017 — up 33 percent from the previous year — thanks to cruise demand from Taiwan, China and other areas in East Asia, the Okinawa General Bureau said in preliminary data.
Based on reservations the bureau expects cruise ship port calls to top this record for 2018, increasing 29 percent to 662.
The prefecture already has a 9.5 million target for fiscal 2017, which ends in March. Should the current pace of growth continue during the January-March period, this goal can be achieved.
Going forward, the prefectural government hopes to attract 12 million people to Okinawa, including those coming to Japan via cruise ships, by fiscal 2021.
However, despite a boost in its number of tourists, Okinawa still has much to do to match Hawaii in other aspects.
The average number of days tourists stayed in Okinawa in fiscal 2016 was 3.78, while the corresponding figure in Hawaii was 8.95 days in 2017.
The gap between Okinawa and Hawaii also remained substantial in terms of average spending per tourist during each trip — ¥75,297 for Okinawa in fiscal 2016 and $1,787.9 (¥196,669) for Hawaii in 2017.
Takao Kadekaru, head of the prefectural government’s division responsible for tourism, said that cooperation between the public and private sectors had born fruit in boosting the number of tourists but that they must make more efforts to put the average number of stays and consumption during those stays on a par with Hawaii.
“For Okinawa, Hawaii is a model in its quest to be a world-class resort,” Kadekaru said.
Satoshi Toyama, chairman at the prefectural hotel association, said they hope to make Okinawa more appealing to tourists so they will be encouraged to stay at least four nights or more — instead of the two-night trips common for most visitors.
He also sees tourists as a potential consumer market for Okinawa’s agriculture products.
“In Hawaii, there is the spirit that they will earn through tourism,” Toyama said, adding that all sectors in Okinawa should make a concerted effort to shape the prefecture into a tourist island.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority announces its monthly data based on five barometers — tourist spending, its impact on tax revenue, number of tourists, the number of flights bound for Hawaii and tourism-related job openings — indicating their strong focus on the economic aspect of tourism.
Another reason why Hawaii’s tourism policy has worked is that it has incorporated the views of local residents.
Around 15 years ago Hawaii launched a campaign offering discount packages to visitors to keep up with the fierce competition, but this irked residents due to incidents of tourists drinking and littering on beaches. The Aloha State then shifted to targeting the affluent, and succeeded in striking a balance between respecting the lives of local residents and entertaining tourists.
“We will be able to welcome visitors more warmly if our policies reflect what the local residents want,” said Ichiro Miyazato, head of a prefectural hotel and inn association labor union.
This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major daily in the prefecture. It was previously called Okinawa Beat. The original article was published on Feb. 2.