Tourists walk through Ishigaki Island’s Euglena Mall shopping district last month. | THE OKINAWA TIMES

As more people in Tokyo and elsewhere were beginning to hole up at home during the coronavirus pandemic, others were venturing out to visit islands in Okinawa Prefecture.

People on the resort island of Miyako as well as others in the Yaeyama archipelago, which had seen the same tourist flows as usual until recently, are conflicted as they welcome tourists while at the same time fear infection. Most of the visitors have been young people.

In an unusual move, Ishigaki Mayor Yoshitaka Nakayama held a news conference on March 31 to warn tourists against a groundless assertion spreading on social media that “southern islands are safe from the virus.”

According to the Ishigaki City Tourism Exchange Association (ICTEA), although a number of school excursions and tours were canceled due to the pandemic, individual and group tourists had visited the city in March as usual.

That month is known as graduation trip season. Many of the visitors arrived via low-cost carriers from Narita and Kansai airports, the association said.

A 19-year-old college student from Kyoto who visited Ishigaki Island on April 1 explained she felt it would be safe to go because “Okinawa reports very few coronavirus patients.”

“I have taken my mask off because of the heat. Many on the island don’t wear them anyway,” she said.

However, local residents have mixed feelings.

A 44-year-old civil servant insisted that entry restrictions should be imposed on tourists. She feared that Ishigaki’s medical infrastructure is “not sufficiently equipped,” with only three beds that can cater to patients with infectious diseases at Yaeyama Hospital. Because the island is small, one case could lead to an exponential rise in cases, the woman warned.

Other residents expressed fear of infection, while acknowledging that they “welcome tourists.”

While the ICTEA showed understanding of the residents’ concerns, it also underscored the plight the tourism industry is facing.

The association argued that the number of tourists on graduation trips was not larger than the previous year’s level, and transportation and hotel occupancy rates have fallen by 30 to 40 percent.

“Financially unstable companies increasingly find themselves cornered,” association Secretary-General Masami Nishinakano said. “Obviously, life is more important than money. Still, I can’t help but worry about the uncertain future.”

On nearby Miyako Island, the downtown beach of Yonaha Maehama was crowded with visitors, as were souvenir shops on Ikema Island, which is linked by a highway.

But a restaurant owner in her 60s in the city said the number of customers has drastically dropped since mid-March.

“Sometimes, only two tourists were on a large bus. We are barely holding on thanks to local customers, but it’s very hard when (there are few tourists).”

Social media posts openly rejecting tourists coming to Miyako Island, apparently by local residents, have increased.

Shunjin Nema, secretary-general of the tourism association for Miyako Island, said, “I intend to ease residents’ concerns by asking our members to thoroughly follow the infection preventive measures recommended by the government.”

On April 8, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki asked residents from outside the prefecture, including Tokyo and six other prefectures initially put under a state of emergency that has since been expanded nationwide, to refrain from visiting Okinawa. He said that the request would be in place until the state of emergency ends on May 6.

This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major newspaper in the prefecture. The original articles were published April 2 and April 8.

【和訳】 

絶えぬ観光客 戸惑う島
八重山・宮古に多くの若者
歓迎と感染懸念が交錯

新型コロナウイルスの感染拡大により首都圏などで外出自粛が広がる中、八重山や宮古島で例年と変わらず観光客が訪れていることに住民から不安の声が上がっている。客の大半は若者たち。インターネットの会員制交流サイト(SNS)で「南の島は安全」など根拠のない情報拡散が影響したとして中山義隆市長は3月31日、観光客に注意を呼び掛ける異例の記者会見を開いた。住民らは「来島は歓迎すべきだが、もし感染したらと思うと怖い」と複雑な思いを吐露する。

 石垣市観光交流協会によると、感染拡大でツアーや修学旅行などの団体客が軒並みキャンセルになった一方、3月の卒業旅行シーズンは例年通り個人やグループ客が訪れている。多くが成田空港や関西空港発の格安航空会社(LCC)を利用しているという。

 京都から石垣島を訪れた大学生の女性(19)は1日、「沖縄は患者の数が少ないので大丈夫という安心感があった」と来島の理由を説明。「島ではマスクを着けていない人の方が多い。暑さもあって今は外している」と話した。

 一方、地元住民は複雑だ。公務員の女性(44)は「現状では観光客の入域制限を考えるべきだ」と指摘する。感染病床が八重山病院に3床しかないことを挙げ、「医療体制が整っていない。もし患者が発生した場合、小さな島なので一気に増える不安もある」と心配した。

 同協会はこうした住民の思いに理解を示す一方で、業界の窮状を訴える。

 卒業旅行客については前年を上回る数ではなく、運輸やホテルの稼働率は3~4割減と説明。西仲野正巳事務局長は「体力のない業者は追い詰められた状況。金より命の方が大事だが先が見えず不安は募るばかりだ」と嘆いた。

 宮古島市でも1日、市下地の与那覇前浜ビーチで水上バイクを楽しんだり、池間島では土産品店で買い物したりする観光客の姿があった。だが飲食店を営む60代女性は、3月半ばごろから客が激減したと話す。「大型バスに観光客が2人しか乗っていないこともある。地元客も来るので何とか持ちこたえているが、(観光客が少ないと)非常に困る」と話した。

 一方、SNSでは「宮古島には観光に来てほしくない」など住民と思われる投稿が相次いでいる。宮古島観光協会の根間春仁事務局長は「会員にも国などが推奨する感染防止策の徹底を呼び掛けるなど、何とか住民の不安を和らげたい」と話した。

(写図説明)観光客らでにぎわう商店街のユーグレナモール=1日、石垣市大川