The year 2020 ends with expectations that 2021 will see a safe vaccine that brings COVID-19 under control, especially, Tokyo hopes, before the scheduled Olympics and Paralympics in the summer. In the Kansai region, however, next year will be spent on economic recovery measures and making plans for a post-coronavirus world.

In Osaka, all eyes are turning toward the 2025 World Exposition. But the excitement supporters felt following Osaka’s selection as host back in 2018 has given way to anxiety and concern.

Original plans to promote Osaka at this year’s expo in Dubai were scuttled after it was postponed to next year. The Dubai Expo will not wrap up until March 2022, giving countries only three years to decide their 2025 plans. While the world’s economy is predicted to be on the road to recovery by 2022, it’s uncertain how much money countries will want to fork out for large, flashy exhibitions in 2025.

Worse for Osaka, expo costs are rising. That’s not surprising. Like Olympic cost estimates, what expo officials tell the public at the bidding stage tends to be lower, sometimes much lower, than the final cost. Osaka won Expo 2025 by saying construction costs would be ¥125 billion. But earlier this month, that estimate was revised upward to ¥185 billion.

Who has to come up with the money? The city and prefecture, the central government, and major Japanese corporations are expected to divide the cost equally among themselves. While all three were prepared to pay ¥40 billion each, they’re now being asked to shell out ¥60 billion each — with no guarantee they won’t be asked for more.

Yumeshima in the city of Osaka is slated to be the venue for the 2025 Osaka Kansai Expo. | KYODO
Yumeshima in the city of Osaka is slated to be the venue for the 2025 Osaka Kansai Expo. | KYODO

Thus, intense discussions are expected next year between Osaka, the central government, and the business community to ensure expo costs don’t balloon in the manner of the costs for the Tokyo Games. The situation is dire since plans for an Osaka casino resort, if it wins the rights to host one, to open by 2025 and provide much-needed revenue for the expo have been shelved.

Money is also on the minds of Kyoto’s leaders. The city happily rode the foreign tourism bubble until the coronavirus struck, and is now in deep financial trouble. The mayor warns that, in the worst-case scenario, Kyoto will run out of money by 2028 and face central government-mandated fiscal restructuring. Reductions in staff and the privatization of some public services have been suggested as cost-cutting measures.

Kyoto’s difficulties are likely to affect plans to rebuild the local tourism industry once COVID-19 is under control. Tourists will certainly return. But whether that means pre-coronavirus massive throngs clogging streets and historical sites, and the related overtourism problems, remains to be seen.

Returning to the tourist bubble years would no doubt please Kyoto and national businesses desperate for tourism revenue. But many Kyoto residents not involved with tourism are enjoying a relatively foreign tourist-free Kyoto. They may balk at efforts, especially in city hall, to go back to pre-virus tourism strategies.

In Wakayama Prefecure, a new project will literally be launched during fiscal 2021. In Kushimoto, on the far southern end of the prefecture, Japan’s first private rocket launch is scheduled to take place before March 2022. Kushimoto aims to attract private businesses from around the country looking to launch their own satellites.

Wakayama also wants to be chosen as a location for one of Japan’s first three casino resorts. That decision from the central government could come in 2021, although the coronavirus has thrown off the schedule.

Thus, with few people in Kansai expecting much of an economic boost from the Tokyo Olympics and more worried about their own lives, the region enters 2021 hoping all will be well, but with an eye toward local development that will bring benefits from 2022 onward.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

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