• The Okinawa Times

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With February’s termination of government employment subsidies, which also partially support furlough allowances, Okinawa Prefecture is expected to face a “March Crisis” — a situation in which tourism industry workers face substantial layoffs.

“Okinawan tourism will definitely recover in two or three years. It is hard to find a reason against it,” said Kenji Sugimoto, president of JTB Okinawa Corp.

However, if many lose their jobs due to the impact of COVID-19, the local industry will face labor shortages when the economy recovers. Sugimoto is therefore proposing an emergency system through which workers are temporarily seconded to companies so that they can return to their jobs once the economy is back on its feet.

The prefecture and the Cabinet Office’s Okinawa General Bureau have devised a support system that transfers workers at companies facing hardships to firms with more financial leeway. But so far the new system has matched only four cases with 11 workers. The system remains unpopular, as users are excluded from the employment subsidies.

JTB Okinawa also seconded its workers for a month in 2020. Despite the need for regular check-ins and support, Sugimoto is certain that the experience will benefit workers as well as firms. In order to protect the employment of major industries, he is calling for the entire economy to adopt a transfer system.

Yoshiharu Hoshino, the head of Hoshino Resorts Inc., says the best way to improve Okinawa’s tourism industry is to improve wages, which will in turn help improve the productivity of its workers.

The quality of service will increase hand in hand with the rise in pay, which will eventually lead to consistent demand across the year. This is what Hoshino Resorts has been doing over the years.

“Increasing hourly pay and the percentage of regular workers (not on short-term contracts) will lead to higher productivity,” Hoshino told Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki on Dec. 25.

The problem is where to start. The monthly pay gap between full-time and part-time workers in the tourism industry averaged ¥80,000 between April and June 2020. The gap has remained unchanged from the time tourism business was strong, and there’s been no big shift in the ratio of part-time workers to full-time workers.

“The various appeals of Okinawa — such as the different variety of foods offered in summer and winter, and a comfortable winter season where the temperature remains steady at 20 degrees Celsius, the same as the summer season in Karuizawa (in Nagano Prefecture) — that hasn’t been properly marketed,” Hoshino said. “Okinawa’s charms have much potential. Delving into them will be the next challenge.”

Indeed, some cities in Okinawa are poor at luring tourists. Urasoe is one of them.

Visitors from outside the prefecture have dubbed Urasoe the “town you pass through.” It has been struggling to attract visitors, and even a year after the extension of the Yui Rail monorail system, which connects Urasoe to Naha, no tourists can be seen exploring the city.

However, Naohiro Senju, executive director of Urasoe Tourist Association, says the spread of the coronavirus is an opportunity to change people’s awareness about tourism.

Local residents often understand tourism as accepting visitors rather than traveling themselves. However, residents can also see the good aspects of tourism by taking a trip themselves, which will allow them to offer better service to visitors in return.

In that sense, increased interaction between people may be a new goal for the industry.

If local residents experience the charms of the local area, Okinawa’s communities will be revitalized, leading to a sustainable tourism industry.

On Jan. 22, the government announced it would extend the subsidies program to the end of March. This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published Dec. 27.

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