Universal Studios Japan scraps planned Okinawa theme park
By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 18, 2016
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Universal Studios has dealt a blow to Okinawa’s growing tourism industry, canceling plans to build a theme park on the southern Japanese island that is home to most of the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan.
“While it was a business decision of one company, it is extremely regrettable,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference last week. “The government will continue to make its utmost effort to promote Okinawa’s economy.”
The Japanese government had pledged unwavering support for the project after plans to bring “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park” attractions to Okinawa were first announced in March 2015.
However, Universal Studios was acquired in November by Comcast Corp., and the American media conglomerate announced last week it would concentrate investments at its existing Osaka theme park instead.
The project was planned for Motobu peninsula’s Ocean Expo Commemorative National Government Park in Okinawa’s northwest, in the same complex as the world-renowned Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium.
Universal Studios Japan CEO Jean Bonnier informed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office of the decision last Wednesday. Later that day, Bonnier visited Okinawa Vice Gov. Mitsuo Ageda to break the news.
“It was very disappointing to hear that the plan was canceled because the theme park was expected to strengthen the Okinawa brand as a tourist destination,” Ageda said.
Tokyo had high hopes that the theme park would boost its poorest prefecture’s economy, and earmarked project research funds in the fiscal 2016 budget.
As America’s footprint on Okinawa continues to decrease, tourism is seen as the prefecture’s path forward. The U.S. bases employed approximately 20,000 locals in 1972 and accounted for more than 16 percent of Okinawa’s economy. In 2014, those numbers dipped to just under 9,000 employees and 6 percent of the economy.
More than 7 million tourists are drawn each year to Okinawa’s beaches and cultural sites. In the past 10 years, tourism-related income has effectively doubled military base-related income on the island.
Experts say the less dependence the Okinawan economy has on the U.S. military, the stronger the calls will be to reduce that footprint.