With the lion’s share of Japan’s beaches, ancient jungles, and a rich culture that harks back to the almighty Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa will surprise and delight conference and incentive delegates, as Lauren Arena recently discovered.

Much like the weather, the peace-loving Okinawans are a famously warm people, welcoming visitors with the saying “Shurei no kokoro” – embrace all and treat them with the utmost courtesy. These words of wisdom are also true of the Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau (OCVB), who recently welcomed more than 150 domestic and international buyers to Japan’s southernmost prefecture as part of its annual Okinawa MICE Project.

For seven years the project, a combined effort of the OCVB and the prefecture of Okinawa, has invited buyers to explore Okinawa’s chain of 160 subtropical islands.

Affectionately regarded as the Hawaii of Japan, Okinawa Prefecture stretches across the Pacific Ocean and East China Sea, from Kagoshima Prefecture to within 100km of Taiwan. It’s the heart of the main archipelago of Japan and with direct flights from Taipei, Seoul, Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong to the capital Naha, and daily domestic flights from Tokyo, Okinawa is fast becoming the gateway of East Asia.

It’s this ease of access, together with its extensive resort and meeting facilities, that’s contributed to Okinawa’s growing popularity as a MICE destination. But what’s really turning the heads of international meeting and incentive planners is Okinawa’s unique and colourful culture, which has been passed down through the island’s extraordinary history as part of the Ryukyu Kingdom – an economic powerhouse that reigned for more than 400 years.

“Everything here is a little different to the mainland,” OCVB chairman, Yoshiyuki Uehara, says.

“We have a unique history, culture and natural environment – that’s what makes Okinawa so attractive.”

Mr Uehara says Okinawa’s reputation as a leading MICE destination was confirmed back in 2000 when it hosted the Kyushu-Okinawa G8 summit.

“The G8 was a really important win for Okinawa because of the international attraction it drew.”

Since then Okinawa’s hosted high-profile international meetings including the 2010 APEC Telecommunications and Information Ministerial Meeting, the 28th International Symposium on Space Technology and Science (ISTS) in 2011, and the Sixth Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM 6) in 2012.

“We’re very proud of our meeting facilities. We have many resorts, like the new Hilton Okinawa Chatan Resort, which opened in July this year; the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, which is a popular MICE venue; and the Okinawa Convention Centre.”

Incentive programs are big business too.

“Our advantage over our neighbours is our natural post-meeting appeal,” Mr Uehara says.

“We have natural attractions like beaches and limestone caves, family-friendly resorts, and parks that celebrate our history and traditional art forms.”

This proud history was on display throughout this year’s Okinawa MICE Project and was celebrated throughout the Okinawa MICE Night welcome function. Held on the grounds of the iconic Shurijo Castle, once the heart of the Ryukyu Kingdom, the evening welcomed delegates with local fare like goya champuru (bitter melon and tofu) and Okinawan soba, traditional Eisa drum dance performances (see p.31), and the art form of coral dyeing, only available in Okinawa.

Delegates also got the chance to try their hand at the sanshin (Okinawan guitar) and sanba (Okinawan castanets), traditional instruments preserved from the Ryukyu era.

The Okinawa Convention Centre hosted a trade event the following day, introducing buyers from Greater China, Singapore, Europe and the US to the meeting facilities, team-building activities and myriad hotels scattered across Okinawa.

There are two dedicated convention facilities available: the Okinawa Convention Centre, the largest facility with capacity for 5000 (exhibition) and 1709 in its theatre complex; and Bankoku Shinryokan, the resort complex that hosted the G8 Summit.

Unique meeting venues can also be found in the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Ishigaki Yaima Village (on Ishigaki island, 50 minutes by air from Naha airport), the Chinese-inspired Fukushuen friendship garden, and the Valley of Gangara for meetings in ancient limestone caves (350pax). Even the Yui Rail, the 12.9 km monorail that connects Naha Airport to Shuri, can be used exclusively for corporate events (a round trip event lasts approximately 90 minutes).

As far as team-building is concerned, the list is endless. There’s beach olympics and dragon boat racing, treks through the Southeast Botanical Gardens, eco-tourism and CSR opportunities, and authentic Okinawan karate lessons (see p.31). Visiting corporate groups can also take part in the Okinawa Corporate Games (next event is March 5-8, 2015) and major festival like the Naha Great Tug of War, the Naha Marathon, and the Motobu Yaedake Sakura Cherry Blossom Festival (held in late January).

Buyer feedback:

“We have a 240pax incentive program booked for Okinawa in May 2016 for a software client, so attending this year’s Okinawa MICE Project has been great to get a feel for the culture, to get comfortable and to meet the suppliers we’ll be working with – great and very informative!”
– Jeannie Balestino, senior account manager, MotivAction (Minneapolis, USA)

“It’s very beautiful outside the big city and facilities are typical of a small island destination, but the OCVB are very eager to help and I would bring business here, perhaps an incentive tour off the back of a meeting in mainland Japan, Taiwan or Hong Kong. I was very impressed by the quality of the exhibitors and the overall organisation of the MICE event.”
– Edward Copperman, director of product development, JTM (London, UK)

By Lauren Arena