Okinawa Tops Hawaii as Tourist Destination

Economy Guide to Japan

In 2017, the number of tourists visiting Okinawa, both domestic and foreign, exceeded 9 million people, surpassing the total number of visitors to Hawaii. However, visitors to the prefecture’s islands spent only half as many days as those to Hawaii, and their spending while on vacation also reached only around half the level enjoyed by the Hawaiian islands. The biggest spike in visitors was that of Asian tourists, with increased flights and cruise routes serving the Okinawa market.

Holidaymakers are pouring off of airplanes and cruise ships onto the islands of Okinawa. According to the local government, nearly 9.58 million people visited Japan’s southernmost prefecture in 2017, the first time this figure has reached over 9 million. Out of this total, around 2.7 million were foreign tourists, marking a significant rise in overseas tourism.

Okinawa Passes Hawaii in Tourist Numbers

Foreign tourists coming to Okinawa had all sorts of different reasons for visiting the islands. A Vietnamese visitor enthused about Miyako Island, one of the prefecture’s picturesque destinations, while a Taiwanese tourist praised Okinawans’ friendly hospitality and the island food: “I love Okinawan soba! It’s so good! The best!”

Hawaii has carved out something of a legendary status for itself as an island paradise, but 2017 marks the first time that tourism to Okinawa exceeded that of its American counterpart, which attracted 9.25 million domestic and international visitors in 2017, according to preliminary statistics.

More Flights and Cruises Bring More Asian Tourists

A major boost to Okinawan tourism has been an increase in the number of international tourists. One local teppanyaki restaurant says social media and online review sites have bolstered their clientele among foreign visitors, with a South Korean diner writing, “This place is delicious, just delicious,” and a Chinese visitor agreeing: “The food here’s really good.”

FNN asked the owner of the establishment, Shishiya, about his thoughts on the increase in foreign tourists. “We get a lot of people from Taiwan and Hong Kong. A lot of them are coming in off cruise ships, so on a day like today, they just come pouring into town. Thanks to them, business is doing well.”

Why are Asian tourists on the rise?

A member of the sales department at Okinawa-based travel agency Fuji Tourist, the local agent for China Airlines tours, told FNN: “There are now more flights and cruises coming in to Okinawa, and you can really see the impact it’s had on the number of tourists here.”

People in the industry point to a growing number of direct flights to Okinawa from places like Singapore, along with an increase in ship cruises stopping off in the southern Japanese islands.

Average Days, Money Spent Remain Half of Hawaiian Levels

Broken down by country, Taiwan topped the foreign tourism rankings in Okinawa last year, providing some 30% of visitors, followed by South Korea and China. Put together, visitors from these three regions made up over 70% of all the foreign tourists for 2017.

Local travel agencies are looking to meet the demands of the market by hiring Chinese-speaking staff and having current employees improve their own language skills. Some staff members at Fuji Tourist’s Okinawa Travel Department report studying Chinese every morning before coming in to work.

Having finally surpassed Hawaii in terms of the number of tourists, Okinawa can now safely say it has comfortably found a place among the world’s top vacation destinations in the world.

Still, in terms of the number of days travelers spent on the islands, Hawaii still comes out ahead: In 2017 Hawaii vacationers averaged 9.0 days in the state, while Okinawa tourists come in at under half of that.

These visitors are spending less money, too, with those visiting Hawaii spending the equivalent of ¥196,000 on average per visit while their Okinawan counterparts only leave ¥75,000 behind in the local economy.

Okinawa remains upbeat about its outlook as a destination, though, and is hoping to hit over 10 million visitors in 2018.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on April 26, 2018. Translated by Nippon.com.)

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