At the end of March, I completed my fourth business trip to Okinawa during the 2020 fiscal year. Overall, it was my 130th trip to Okinawa, not including those made during the eight years I lived there.
The 2020 fiscal year essentially overlapped with the same period in which COVID-19 began to have a real economic impact on the country, particularly in the travel industry. That industry includes hotels, airlines, cruise ships, tour guides, restaurants, stores, museums and cultural sites at various tourist destinations. Companies and shops have closed and tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs as a result.
This last trip was taken at the end of the fiscal year. I visited Okinawa once each quarter, more by coincidence than planning. As such, I was able to make comparisons every few months about how the southernmost prefecture was doing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Okinawan economy is particularly dependent on tourism. Tourism, or kanko, is one of the three pillars of its 3K economy, with kokyo jigyo (public works) and kichi (military bases) being the other two.
For political reasons — namely to try to show that the prefecture does not need the bases and can get by on tourism — the economic contribution of the bases is heavily downplayed, sometimes by five or 10 times as much, in the Okinawa Prefecture government publications and the local media. That exercise in intellectual dishonesty is done in part by excluding, purposely or otherwise, the counting of categories related to direct and indirect revenue from the presence of the military facilities.
With this said, the local economy’s reliance on tourism cannot be denied. Because of this, the impact of COVID-19 on the Okinawan tourist industry has been devastating for the prefecture. It is not just in lost jobs and businesses; local government services will likely be cut because of lost revenue — with those who rely on these services expected to be the most affected.
For most of last year, monthly figures consistently showed on average a drop of 80% in tourists compared to the previous year. During my last trip there, I noticed there was a slight uptick in travel to the prefecture. That, in part, was due to the fact that those who would normally travel abroad in the spring decided to go to Okinawa instead, but it was nowhere near similar times in previous years.
Because business was so slow, it was a perfect time for the Okinawan tourist industry to use the downtime to rethink strategy, retrain employees, re-invest in companies and re-dedicate itself to the tourism business. But unfortunately, I saw none of this: To me, Okinawa has wasted the past year.
One thing Okinawa needed to do is to consider how to reduce its dependency on the tourism industry and develop other sustainable industries.
This is not the first time its tourism industry has been impacted. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States, domestic and international travel stopped and then reopened with greater restrictions in place. Numerous tour groups, especially middle school and high school student trips, canceled plans to visit the island prefecture after the Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo reported that traveling to Okinawa was dangerous because the presence of the U.S. bases made them potential targets. Local criticism of the fearmongering of the newspapers eventually caused those media outlets to tone it down.
Similarly, China has weaponized its tourists in the past by limiting the number of travel groups heading to Ishigaki and Okinawa proper as a way to criticize or boycott certain local or national actions and decisions. China did so knowing it would put great economic pressure on Okinawa and Japan by doing so.
Another time when tourism was impacted happened after the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake, when the national mood discouraged otherwise pleasurable activities.
As such, Okinawa needs to diversify its economy more and at the minimum decouple itself from dependency on China, Chinese investment and Chinese tourists.
With this said, it should also improve the tourist experience in Okinawa from being a cheap place to go to being a truly enjoyable place to visit. Okinawa receives a lot of money from the central government but has little to show for it.
Further, it is a generally unclean place. Roadsides and sidewalks are filthy with garbage and usually overgrown with high, uncut grass. This is true not only in the remote areas but also especially on the main thoroughfares. A recent walk along a straight line from the cruise ship berth to the center of Naha where the prefectural government building is located is a good example of this.
Historic sites off the beaten path are similarly not taken care of. Paths are overgrown with brush and garbage, spider webs and the occasional habu (poisonous snake).
Signage in English and other languages is lacking, especially for these lesser known but equally interesting historic sites. When I lived in Okinawa, I loved visiting the many smaller castle sites and remains but was disappointed to see the signs and markers not taken care of and not available in English or other languages. The same was true for other places too, such as the sites of battles and memorials.
Moreover, few people in the tourist industry, including those at stores, hotels and restaurants speak English.
Taxi drivers unfortunately generally do not speak English either, and worse, are notorious for bad manners and poor driving.
Whether with the stores, hotels or transportation industry jobs, the past year could have been dedicated to improving customer service and language skills. But according to those who work or are otherwise familiar with those jobs, nothing has been done.
Each of these problems are minor in and of themselves, but when taken together suggest that Okinawa does not take its tourist industry seriously. These problems existed before COVID-19. Unfortunately, Okinawa has done nothing to correct these areas during the one-year plus of the pandemic-caused recession.
It will sadly find itself flat-footed when and if things pick up again. It is important for an organization or company to use downtime as a way to reinvest in themselves. Japan did that through much of the period of high economic growth when temporary slowdowns, such as the oil crises of the 1970s, required a rethink.
The current pandemic is an even bigger crisis and requires a greater rethink. Okinawa seems to simply be waiting for it to pass rather than doing things to make the tourist industry immune to ups and downs.
Robert D. Eldridge is a former tenured associate professor at Osaka University and director for North Asia with the Global Risk Mitigation Foundation.
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