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.


絶えぬ観光客 戸惑う島