National | Regional Voices: Okinawa

Okinawa sees fall in foreign visitors amid pandemic

The OKINAWA TIMES

Senagajima Umikaji Terrace, a Mediterranean-esque shopping mall located near the west coast of Senaga Island in Okinawa Prefecture, usually sees crowds of tourists and lines of buses and rentals cars. Starting in around mid-February this year, however, the number of tour group from overseas has sharply declined, replaced to an extent with local visitors.

The change in the customer landscape was triggered by fears over the spread of COVID-19, which has kept foreign travelers away and made domestic customers more visible.

“Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the area’s customer base has changed completely,” said an official at the tourism association for Senaga Island, which runs Umikaji Terrace in the city of Tomigusuku.

Since March 1, the number of local visitors has been growing, according to the official. On March 7, Umikaji Terrace was bustling with families and couples from Okinawa.

A married couple in their 40s, who came from the town of Yonabaru, in the south of Okinawa’s main island, enjoyed going out for the first time in days due to the virus pandemic.

The tourism association official said the operator is carefully enforcing precautions against COVID-19 for visitors.

“Although the prospects of the outbreak remains uncertain, all we can do is to manage the facility through thorough disinfection and frequent ventilation so visitors can feel relaxed and unwind,” the official said.

A similar trend was observed at the American Village shopping and entertainment area in Okinawa’s central town of Chatan. On March 7, there were more American troops and students from the prefecture than there were tourists spending time in the area. Reflecting the reduced visitor traffic, a 33-year-old owner of a ramen noodle shop said that in the past two weeks, there has been no need to ask customers to write their names on the waiting list, even during the busiest hours.

In normal times, half of the customers had been Chinese tourists, the owner said, but these days “our customers are either Japanese construction workers or Americans,” he said. “It is the first time (for us to experience the customer base change) in our three-year history of operation.”

Along with overseas travel, domestic trips are raising concerns about infection. A 32-year-old man who took a four-day trip to Okinawa from Fukuoka Prefecture with his 25-year-old wife said they went ahead with their journey because they had already booked the flights and hotels. But the man said his colleagues asked him to be cautious “not to bring back the coronavirus.”

At the Euglena Mall shopping arcade at the southernmost tip of Ishigaki Island, foreign tourists have disappeared due to the coronavirus-triggered suspension of cruise ships from other Asian countries and flights to and from Hong Kong. Instead, young Japanese people are somewhat filling the gap.

A university student couple from Tokyo, who were at the ferry terminal at the port of Ishigaki near the mall, found it unnecessary to restrict themselves excessively.

This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published March 8.

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