Okinawa tourism industry left reeling after fire guts Shuri Castle

More than 100 million yen (S$1.24 million) has been raised to restore Japan’s Shuri Castle in Okinawa, where a catastrophic blaze on Thursday caused extensive damage and left at least one third – or about 400 – of its artefacts completely destroyed.

The 400 items were being stored in the Unesco heritage site’s Seiden, otherwise known as its main hall, which was among six buildings considered beyond repair after the blaze ripped through the hilltop castle overlooking the city of Naha.

Two adjacent buildings that enclosed the courtyard also sustained serious damage and will have to be demolished. In total, six buildings are thought to be beyond saving.

According to the Okinawa Churashima Foundation, the castle was used to store about 1,500 unique and priceless artefacts from across Okinawa prefecture and the Ryukyu Kingdom, as the islands were known before being annexed by Japan in 1879.

The artefacts, many of which were on display to the public, included paintings, scrolls and documents as well as traditionally dyed fabrics, lacquerware and musical instruments.

Officials said that besides the items in the Seiden, others were stored in two archives designed to be fireproof. The intense heat generated by the blaze buckled the doors to the archives, however, and experts have been unable to ascertain whether the contents survived.

Shuri Castle was one of the most prominent tourist sites in Okinawa, attracting 2.8 million people in the year to March. Many in the prefecture’s all-important tourism sector are concerned about the impact the fire will have on their businesses.

“I am worried that almost no tourists will come here for some time,” Akihiro Otsuji, who runs an ice cream shop close to the castle, told the Mainichi newspaper. “I think all the shops here will face difficulties doing business.”

Others were more optimistic, although they pointed out that Okinawa‘s tourism sector was already in the doldrums due to an ongoing row between Japan and South Korea over history and trade, while the number of visitors from Hong Kong had also declined.

“There’s a lot of shock and a lot of grief among Okinawan people,” said Carl Bastian, who is based in the prefecture and serves as chairman of the Tourism and Hospitality Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

“People are devastated. It’s dominating the nightly news and there are public fundraising campaigns under way already,” he said. “And while there have been rumours that it was arson, I think those have never been substantiated and I think the latest reports are that it was an electrical short of some kind.

“The castle may be gone – and it seems like it’s going to take at least five years to rebuild again – but I don’t think that is going to have too much impact on the travel industry,” he added. “People didn’t come here just to see Shuri. There are plenty of other things to see and do.

“But it does come at a difficult time,” Bastian admitted. “The loss of South Korean visitors, in particular, has put a huge dent in the inbound market and some hotels are struggling.”

Bastian estimated that more than 30 per cent of the overseas inbound market had been from South Korea before the disagreement between Seoul and Tokyo bubbled over into a full-blown diplomatic confrontation. Now, the number of South Korean arrivals was “close to zero”, he said.

Visitors from Hong Kong would typically account for 15 per cent of Okinawa‘s inbound market, but the continuing anti-government protests in the city – including at the airport – had put a lot of people off travelling, and arrivals from Hong Kong “have taken a big hit”, he said.

A total of 24.42 million foreign visitors arrived in Japan in the first nine months of 2019, up 5.2 per cent on the same period one year earlier.

Arrivals from China came to more than 7.4 million, up nearly 15 per cent on the previous year. Tourist numbers from Singapore were up 9.1 per cent, while arrivals from the Philippines were up 13 per cent.

The statistics show that many Hongkongers have not been put off travelling to Japan as a whole, with total arrivals to the country from the Chinese city at 1.66 million in the period, virtually the same number as last year.

The figures for South Korea have, however, plummeted. Slightly more than 4.9 million tourists arrived from the country in the first nine months of 2019, down more than 13 per cent from the same period in 2018. The full-year figures are expected to show a more dramatic decline.

A record 9.84 million foreign tourists visited Okinawa in 2018 and there were hopes within the industry that the prefecture would break the 10 million barrier this year, but external factors now meant that was extremely unlikely, Bastian said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.