Old Japanese poets, in their penchant for imagery, wrote that if Japan is a pearl necklace, then Okinawa is its pendant. That may be a stretch, but it’s not far-fetched to say that it’s beautiful, tropical, friendly and blessed with exceptional weather, which is the main reason the Japanese rank it as the most popular destination within their country. Indeed, Japanese nationals flock here to enjoy pristine beaches and warm sun, giving Okinawa the reputation of a Japanese Hawaii. And although the number of Westerners has shown an uptick in recent years, that number pales when stacked against the more popular Japanese mainland destinations.
Nevertheless, Okinawa is a destination with tremendous appeal and enough activities to make it worth offering to those interested in visiting. Its unique culture and food, along with its arts and crafts, history, world-class diving and top-notch resorts are making Okinawa one of the more desirable Asian destinations.
In fact, the opening of a new airport plus the expansion of Naha airport with a second runway is already showing positive results towards tourism officials’ long-range, ambitious goal of attracting 10 million visitors a year.
Kazuya Oshiro, coordinator, Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau (OCVB), says that one of the more appealing facets of Okinawa is the friendliness of its people. “Westerners at first find it disconcerting to realize the people here treat you as a friend,” he says. “[Visitors often think Okinawans] are shy because of their English language skills. However, that won’t matter when visitors learn the old Okinawa saying that once you meet someone, you become brothers or sisters. After a trip here, the friendliness of its people is one of the great memories you will take from Okinawa.”
Last June, the Okinawa Prefectural Government announced that tourism increased 36 percent from the previous year. But while foreign tourist arrivals rose almost 27 percent to 382,500 in 2013, U.S. visitors made up only about 3 percent of that number.
Oshiro adds that OCVB, in its efforts to lure U.S. tourists, has “formed a strong partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) to promote Okinawa on an equal footing with Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and other extremely popular destinations. We have also found, and are now working with, potential U.S. travel entities like travel agents, advertising firms and more.”
Naha, Okinawa’s capital, is a vibrant, electric and sparkling city that astounds those with preconceived ideas of it being merely a U.S. military R&R destination. It’s far from that.
Modern conveniences are everywhere, and a delightful monorail mirrors its devotion to the future. Its proximity to popular spots that attract visitors make it a perfect destination to discover the wonders of the island; in itself, Naha has plenty to offer those willing to remain in a large city.
The city is full of noteworthy sites like the ancient Shurijo Castle, the last remnant of a Ryukyuan Kingdom that lorded over the islands before being annexed by Japan in the 17th century; Kokusai Street, known as The Miracle Mile, full of restaurants and shops; the Fukushuen Garden, a delightful green spot that blends Chinese and Japanese cultures; and Tsuboya, an esplanade lined with ceramic shops offering one-of-a-kind masterpieces where, oddly enough, one finds a brewery specializing in Awamori, the potent and flavorful Okinawa liquor that makes sake taste like tap water.
No mention of Okinawa is complete, however, without highlighting the delicious dishes from modest restaurants in Ogimi Village, about 30 minutes from Naha, where, incidentally, centenarians are the norm not the exception—five times as many Okinawans, in fact, live to be 100 years or older than their Japanese compatriots, so tell clients to eat up.
In terms of accommodations, the Loisir Spa Tower Hotel will not disappoint. The plush, 12-floor property, conveniently situated near the airport, has 89 rooms ($190 per night dbl) that range from deluxe rooms to ultra-plush suites with Western-style furniture. The Loisir somehow manages to maintain exquisite Japanese touches with modern amenities and is hailed as one of Okinawa’s most romantic hotels with a full-service spa fed by natural hot springs and relaxing treatments designed for couples. Guests are sure to enjoy the hotel’s proximity to the Naminoue Shrine, the Tsushima-maru Memorial Museum and the Makishi Public Market, three of Naha’s more popular attractions.
The Okinawa Marriott Resort & Spa (from $141 dbl) is a 344-room, 17-suite secluded property in the central section of the island overlooking the East China Sea. Its rooms facing Nago Bay are known for the spectacular sunrises, while the resort’s second wing boasts equally stupendous sunset views.
Those who prefer even more remote but exceedingly exotic accommodations will find the Shigira Bayside Suite Allamanda, with its 86 deluxe suites with private pools, to be one of Okinawa’s highlights when it comes to luxury properties (from $190 per night dbl). The resort is on Miyakojima, about 180 miles from Okinawa and easily accessible by a 45-minute Japan Airlines flight from Naha. Some may consider it difficult to reach the island, but the rewards of Miyakojima are worth it. The island is flat and full of sugar cane fields, but the resort faces a bay with blinding sapphire waters. Coral reefs, yards from the shore, are ideal for snorkelers and divers. It’s no wonder that locals call Miyakojima “the heavenly island.”
how to sell okinawa
According to Kiyoshi Tan, president of All Japan Tours—a firm based in Ontario, CA, and founded in 2000 as a land operator in Japan before expanding to the U.S. in 2009—travel agents should stress that “Okinawa has its own culture and it’s very different from the other main islands of Japan. Therefore, it’s not just a resort. It is very different—with museums, history, food and art, as well as unique architecture. Since the weather is so mild, it’s a destination that can be visited year-round.
“Okinawa is not very popular with U.S. travelers yet, perhaps because it’s seen as a tropical vacation destination like many others in the world. Yet it is the most popular destination within Japan—and those who get a chance to visit love it. With a little more promotion, I’m sure Okinawa will be as popular as other well-known Japanese destinations like Kyoto and Tokyo.”
He adds that travel agents should “show clients the lesser-known side of Okinawa and talk about what Okinawa offers, which is far different from mainland Japan. [Travel agents should] introduce this destination to repeat clients who have been to other destinations on Japan’s main islands. Also, they should underline that Okinawa is a good place to relax and enjoy the beach and is ideal for those who don’t want to do too much sightseeing. We’ll see more interest in this destination because of its nice weather, beautiful seas and coral reefs abundant with marine wildlife, plus its unique Ryukyuan culture.”
All Japan Tours offers a 5-night Okinawa Tour (from $1,798 pp, air included) that visits sites such as the Nakijin Castle, and Churaumi Aquarium, which may be the best of its kind in Asia.
Naha Airport (OKA) is a 3-hour flight from Tokyo accessed on a number of airlines including ANA, Japan Airlines, United and Delta. There are also regularly scheduled direct flights from the U.S. west coast to Naha.
All Japan Tours: (855) 325-2726; alljapantours.com or alljapantours.com/go-agentinfo.php
Shigira Bayside Suite Allamanda: nanseirakuen.com/en/allamanda
Loisir Spa Tower Hotel: loisir-spatower.com
Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau: ocvb.or.jp/en
Okinawa Marriott Resort & Spa: marriott.com or travelagents.marriott.com/travelagents/signin.mi