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Rumors, fear of terrorism stifle Okinawan tourism

By: Takeshi Shimabukuro (KC)

Date Posted: 2001-10-25

Around this season every year, the main streets of Naha and all other tourist spots are the sea of white, black or blue school uniforms as students from

mainland make Okinawa one of their favorite destinations on their school trip. These school trips are an important source of revenue for every tourism related company in Okinawa, but this year is different. Streets are much quieter with significantly fewer school trips coming here compared to previous years.

Sudden awareness of terrorism following the events in New York on Sep. 11 has had an impact far over the ocean on Okinawa. Tourism is the second largest income earner on this subtropical island, and fortunes have a big influence to the whole Okinawan economic development.

“Safety” is the key word here. Following the situation in the United States and the war in Afghanistan, Okinawa has become a target of suspicion by travelers from mainland, fears fueled by daily reports in the Japanese media on how the bases have beefed up their security, and the news that the National Police Agency has dispatched hundreds of extra riot police here. All this has unnerved especially group travelers who all know that Okinawa is the island where the largest US military bases in Japan are located. What if something happens? Many people must have thought so, as the number of tourists, mostly school groups, who have cancelled their trips, is well over 100,000 and climbing, according to the Resort Bureau of Okinawa Prefectural Government.

The impact of the decrease to the island’s economic look will be severe. The Research Section of the Bank of the Ryukyus reports that if the number of tourists to Okinawa decreases 10 % (467,000 people), and based on the Prefectural economic forecasts through March 2002, the tourism income will fall by ¥48 billion. The unemployment will rise 0.4%, meaning an increase of 2,400 unemployed people, and the overall economic growth will change from 0.8% increase to 0.7% negative this year.

In addition, the situation has grown worse for new graduates seeking employment and part time workers. Followed by a wave of cancellations, one large hotel in Okinawa has decided to revoke job offers to 70 freshmen. Also, 20 % of all part time workers at the hotel were ordered to stay home and wait until the situation improves. Other hotels have decided to employ only half of the usual number of temporary workers.

Ohama, the head of the Urgent Task Force Headquarters of Okinawa Convention and Visitors’ Bureau says, “One of Okinawa’s peak tour seasons is Oct. and Nov. and there’s no easy way to remedy the situation quickly. We are struggling hard to counter prevailing rumors, and are ready go to mainland, and any place, to explain ‘Okinawa is SAFE.’ But it’s hard.” He confesses to be skeptical. “We think the situation will not turn around within a year.”

The Commerce and Industry, Labor Department of Okinawa Prefectural Government has launched formal countermeasures to cope with the situation and aid hotels facing economic hardships. On Oct. 17, officials set up a Center for Urgent Economic Help Counseling at the Management and Financial Section of the Prefectural Government. An advisory center was also established, and the government decided to ease the requirements for financial aid to tourism related companies including hotels, inns, taxis and buses.

Prefecture officials have sent letters in the name of Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine, to schools planning to make tours to Okinawa and tourist agents, explaining that Okinawa is a safe place to visit and not to worry about the threat of terrorism. Governor Inamine traveled to Tokyo to make formal petitions to the Government Cabinet Office, the Ministry of National Land and Transportation, and the Ministry of Education and Science. Officials at the Ministry of Education and Science promised to give appropriate help citing the eruption Mt. Usu in Hokkaido as an example of possible financial aid.

On Oct. 15, the OCVB organized a big outdoor convention under the name “Safe and Comfortable Okinawa Sightseeing.” Around 600 people from tourism related companies gathered at the convention, and promised to “fight against rumors and assert Okinawa is safe!”

At the same time, not everyone is afraid, and some school groups are cheering up Okinawa. Atsugi Higashi High School students set up banners on the sides of their tour buses stating “Chibariyo (Cheer up in Okinawan dialect) Okinawa” and “Ganbare (Cheer up in Japanese) Uchinanchu (Okinawan in Okinawan dialect).” The principal of the school says, “it would be a precious memory for students if we could see the real Okinawa as Okinawans see it, that’s why we decided to come.”

Ohama says, “we are very encouraged by such schools.” He continues, “Okinawa is the only place within Japan damaged by terrorism rumors. Okinawa has large U.S. bases and the bilateral security system will not change instantly. Unexpectedly, we find ourselves with a heavy damage to our main industry.”

Those tourists who have arrived at Okinawa do not worry. A couple in their 50’s visiting Shuri Castle National Park smiled and said, “Nobody has to worry about the situation in Okinawa. We feel so now, after seeing some tourist spots and driving around. Everything seems very ordinary and safe. People are too sensitive.” He blames newspapers and TV for much of the rumors. “News reporting has made a big sensation of the possible danger of a to trip to Okinawa. But it is all inside of the bases. Normal tourists do not have to worry at all.” But still, he adds, “ In the case of a school trip, I can understand, if one parent opposes going to Okinawa, and then the worry gets around quickly, so maybe the school would think of canceling.”

Two 22-year-old men sightseeing Okinawa said, “Before coming here, we thought about the possible danger a bit, but actually, there is nothing to worry. There is no check of belongings in hotels, roads, or resorts. So no worry for us.”

On the other hand, a 55-year-old housewife from Aichi Prefecture walking around the Shuri Castle, says, “we came because we had already made a reservation long time ago. So we thought canceling would be like throwing money away. But if we had not made a reservation, we would have not dared to come and visit.” She continues, “So far, it is safe around here, but we cannot know about later situation.”

Hard times seem to continue for Okinawa’s tourism industry. How far the industry can go to persuade the mainland market is the key point in welcoming back the tourists and to sustain the Okinawan economy itself.

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