Okinawa joins space tourist race

Shimojishima airportJapan officially joined the space tourist race this week after spacecraft developer PD AeroSpace reached an agreement with the Okinawa prefectural government to transform an under-used airport on Miyako Shimojishima island into a ‘space port’ that should be ready to propel well-heeled and adventurous travellers  – many of them probably Chinese – 100km off the ground by 2025. Each flight is expected to last 90 minutes and will take its passengers to the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space known as the Kármán line after the Hungarian physicist who first ascertained its existence. For the five minutes that they remain up there, they will experience the same weightless conditions as the growing legion of astronauts who have followed in Yuri Gagarin’s footsteps over the past 60 years.
Likely to cost around $140,000 a trip the Okinawa experience will not come cheap, although the company claims they will be undercutting the competition by around 30%. “We plan to target people from across Asia and we believe there are a lot of people who would very much like to go into space if only the price of a flight was lower,” said PD Aerospace’s Ryo Ojima. “We selected Miyako Shimojishima for four reasons. It has a 3,000-metre runway, it has a training airspace that is aligned north-south, it faces the ocean and the local authorities have been cooperative.”
Chinese tourists OkinawaIn its inaugural year, PD AeroSpace expects to take around 100 people into orbit and  plans to ramp that up to 1,000 by 2030. In normal times that would seem an insignificant addition to the three million or so overseas visitor who descend on Okinawa each year – 80% of whose trips originate in China, Taiwan, South Korea or Hong Kong – but the pandemic has had a devastating effect on the region’s tourist industry and any positive news is welcome.
“Okinawa has felt the loss of the China market due to the coronavirus, so it makes complete sense that they would go after wealthy travellers from the big cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong – as their passengers,” says Ashley Harvey, general manager of destination management firm Aviareps Japan. “All those cities have huge populations, large numbers of people with money to spend and easy access to Okinawa. These are people who have already travelled overseas and have seen many of the major attractions around the world, so they are going to be looking for something completely different, something that none of their friends have tried before.”
Japan PM Yoshihide SugaThe announcement will also have been welcomed by incoming Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga who has vowed to remain true to his predecessor Shinzo Abe signature ‘Abeonomics’ economic policies and needs all the help he can get. Japan’s economy, which was already grappling with the long-term effects of its ageing population, shrank by a record 27.8% this April as it felt the full force of the pandemic and Suga is now expected to push forward with bureaucratic reforms, digitalisation, and support for Japan’s agricultural and tourist industries as a means of improving the economic lot of the country’s  rural communities.