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Labor Shortage Hurting Okinawa Hotels

Daisuke Azuma

Beautiful beaches, a turquoise sea and unique culture draw tourists from around the world to the southern Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. The number of visitors is rising and last year topped 7 million.

That's the good news for hotel managers, but the bad news is they are in the middle of a serious labor shortage. A survey shows that 70 percent of hotels and restaurants in the prefecture don't have enough staff.

And new hotels keep popping up. More than 20 resort hotels have been built in the past five years, and the bigger the hotel, the more acute the labor shortage. Quality housekeeping workers are especially hard to find.

The janitorial company Okinawa Daiken has 900 part-time workers, and needs at least 100 more in order to meet demand from hotels. The latest recruiting drive yielded only a dozen new workers. "We're doing our best to recruit new people, but we keep falling short," manager Tsuguhiro Touma says. "At the same time, veteran workers are retiring."

The company provides a shuttle bus service to take its workers to resort hotels in an effort to get them to stay in their jobs. They have also hired 80 foreign students from Asia and experienced members of the staff are teaching them how to do the job. Company managers say it takes time for them to gain job skills. "We couldn't continue our business without foreign students," Touma says. "If I could hire more people, I could get contracts with the new hotels and improve the quality of our service. Honestly, it's frustrating."

Hotel managers are worried about an exodus of workers seeking better working conditions. Manager Kenji Yamashiro has given his employees raises of up to 7 percent in a bid to get them to stay. It adds about $25,000 to the annual payroll.

Yamashiro has also decided to eliminate overtime work, saying the long hours hotel workers put in are a big reason why young people seek other jobs. "We will create a friendly working environment and make our hotel management more transparent," he says.

Some analysts believe the labor crunch in Okinawa's tourism industry will only get more serious. "Tourism is a big industry in Okinawa," says Sachiko Ito of The Okinawa Development Finance Corporation. "But there's no school to learn tourism and hotel management. Not all hotels are big enough to develop human resources. I think the local government and tourism industry need to come up with a system for that."

The Okinawan government hopes to increase the number of visitors to 10 million within the next 6 years. But first, they will need to make the labor environment within the tourism industry more attractive.

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