• Kyodo

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With the Ogasawara Islands marking the 50th anniversary on Tuesday of their return to Japan following U.S. occupation, a plan to connect the remote, subtropical islands with the Japanese mainland with air services has again come under the spotlight.

Residents have long hoped for flight services to boost tourism and convenience, as traveling to Chichijima — one of around 30 islands in the Pacific about 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo — takes 24 hours by ship.

But some are concerned about potential disruption from building an airport on rare natural habitats, while others are worried about the financial cost.

The islands, dubbed the “Galapagos of the Orient” for their rich and distinctive biodiversity, are a popular destination for ecotourism. Although the Ogasawara Islands were added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites in 2011, the number of visitors remains low compared with Okinawa Prefecture, which receives many tourists as its islands are well connected by various flights including international services.

Currently a ferry service, operating roughly once a week, connects the island of Chichijima and Tokyo’s Takeshiba terminal. People who require urgent hospital care are airlifted to the Japanese mainland by the Self-Defense Forces, a process that still takes hours. “When we think about children and others (in need), flight services are absolutely necessary,” said Shigeo Ichiki, a 47-year-old member of the Ogasawara assembly.

He opposed the plan for flight services when he moved to Ogasawara 17 years ago, but changed his mind after his wife had a miscarriage while she was on her way by ship to the hospital on the main island. His new perspective was further reinforced when he saw another islander unable to travel to the mainland to attend a family funeral.

According to a survey of islanders conducted 10 years ago by the municipality, about 70 percent said a flight service connecting the remote islands and the mainland was necessary.

An air service plan was discussed shortly after the 1968 reversion of the islands from the postwar U.S. occupation, but the plan stalled after several candidate sites for the airport were rejected.

With a population of about 2,600 all living on Chichijima or Hahajima, the Ogasawara islands are under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and are administered by the Ogasawara Municipal Government.

In July last year, the metropolitan government resumed discussions for the first time in seven years on opening an air route to Ogasawara. Council members agreed on a plan to develop an airport in the Susaki district, which is in the western part of Chichijima.

Although the district is outside the boundary of the natural World Heritage site, there is concern about the impact that building runways could have on surrounding waters as well as how to make the new route profitable.

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