The disappearance of foreigners from the streets due to coronavirus continues to assail Okinawa’s economy, with travel agency sales – which rely heavily on Chinese patronage – dropping to almost “zero”

The disappearance of foreigners from the streets due to coronavirus continues to assail Okinawa’s economy, with travel agency sales – which rely heavily on Chinese patronage – dropping to almost “zero”

The decline in foreign visitors visible at the First Makishi Public Market in Naha, February 25

February 26, 2020 Ryukyu Shimpo

As the coronavirus (COVID19) continues to spread over the world, including throughout Japan, the prospects for Okinawa meeting their goal of bringing 10 million tourists to Okinawa this year is looking bleak, and the effects are starting to be felt all over Okinawa’s economy.

After a swath of foreign visitor travel plans, mostly from Chinese tourists, were cancelled, the damage continues as sales numbers for travel agencies have greatly dropped.

Business that rely on inventory from China have also begun to find procurement difficult, and if the contagion continues for an elongated period of time, many of these business may find themselves at risk.

Due to the continued spread of the coronavirus, travel agencies in Naha, who cater to mostly Chinese customers, are reporting that their sales have fallen to almost “zero,” and that their continued operations are being put at risk.

A bus tour company, that regularly operated four tours per day, saw their numbers in February fall to only twice per week.

It does not appear that the situation will improve from March onward.

The company is looking to cut costs in order to ride it out, however a managing director at the company explained the dire situation, saying “We are providing life-prolonging treatment to the company.”

There has also been some consideration towards making use of Okinawa Prefecture’s “Small-to-medium business safety-net fund” loan system, however with no outlook on sales improving in the near future, there is a lot of hesitation around taking out a new loan.

A representative from the bus company said, “Taking on debt when there is no clear way forward is difficult. I wonder if they will even give out a loan to a company already in the red.”

Currently, the company’s employees are being sent to work as usual, but if these effects continue the company will be forced to curtail their working days.

Another place where this effect has been felt is whale watching, for which the season is at its peak in February and March.

Travel agencies in Okinawa are reporting that tour reservations are down 30% compared to the previous year.

There have been cancellations from foreign group tours, however someone involved in the industry indicates “There have also been a number of domestic cancellations due to coronavirus fears.”

Another marine leisure company is reporting that whale-watching tour reservations are only half what they would be in a regular year.

A representative reports, “January numbers were strong at about 120-130% of the average, however due to the effects of the coronavirus new reservations have been very sluggish,” saying with a sigh that there has been a slump since the start of February.

Okashigoten (headquartered in Yomitan), which makes and sells the famous “original purple yam tart” among other things, is reporting that since the cancellations and decrease in travel began, sales at their souvenir stores and restaurants are down 10% compared to the previous year.

Looking at only inbound (visitors from other countries) sales, which largely come from China, there has been a 20% year-over-year decrease. The decrease in sales has led to a decrease in production.

Meanwhile, there is also an issue at their store in Nago that sells various goods and sundries where they cannot get the items they import from China, and they are currently looking for an alternative with domestic suppliers.

A representative commented, “We are going to re-focus not as a business that specializes in souvenirs, but as a sweets maker focused on local customers.”

(English translation by T&CT and Sam Grieb)

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