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NAHA, Okinawa — This subtropical tourist haven has dodged the SARS epidemic so far, and prefectural officials want to keep it that way.

So last week they politely told tourists from Taiwan to stay home.

Okinawa Vice Gov. Shigemasa Higa sent a written request to the Naha office of a cultural exchange association that acts as the de facto Taiwan mission here. He urged Taiwan residents to “refrain from nonessential or non-urgent visits to Okinawa” until the risks of transporting the killer pneumonia-like disease subside.

Taiwan is among the top five areas in Southeast Asia hit hard by the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, recording 52 deaths since the mysterious illness was identified earlier this year. China has reported 295 deaths and Hong Kong 253.

There are cruises and direct flights between Taiwan and Okinawa. Okinawa tourism officials estimate the island hosts 130,000 visitors from Taiwan each year.

Some Okinawa officials have called for the prefecture to take a stronger stance on the SARS issue and demand the airlines suspend flights until Taiwan can give assurances it is adequately screening passengers. They point to the case of a SARS-infected Taiwanese doctor who recently took a sightseeing tour of western Japan.

One flight suspension went into effect in April when China East Airlines canceled its twice-weekly flights between Naha and Shanghai. The cancellations will last through June 30.

The number of tour groups coming to Okinawa from Taiwan already has dropped dramatically — from 30 a week to just two or three — in the past few weeks, a local travel agent said.

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