This December, Chloe and I visited Onna Village in Okinawa. Globally renowned for its marine sports, Onna Village recognises its coral reefs as the treasure of the island and has been working to protect them for many years. Despite this, the island’s corals are dying because of the effects of global warming and the village has recognised the need to do more to prevent further damage.

They’re already well underway with their efforts. In July 2018, the mayor declared Onna Village as the “Village of Coral” and announced the implementation of a new approach, strongly focused on conservation. This Sustainable Development Goals campaign is a pilot project which aims to demonstrate how sustainable tourism can play a positive part in coral reef conservation. It is one of 10 pilot conservation projects around the country, but the only one focusing on marine conservation! If it succeeds in its mission – and proves the value of sustainable tourism – there’s the potential for the model to be escalated to a national level. A wide rollout would allow us to focus on uptake and expansion into other marine tourism and biodiversity hotspots across Japan. And, you guessed it, Green Fins has been chosen as an integral programme to help the campaign in its mission to protect coral reefs for future generations. 

It’s an exciting and ambitious project to be involved in and our visit was a scoping trip to find out more and plan next steps. We learned a lot about diving in Japan and there were many things which surprised us– in particular, the state of the diving industry. While I’d expected the Japanese diving industry to be highly regulated, this was far from the case. In Japan, diving is not officially recognised as a profession, so the industry is largely unregulated. As a result, there are a huge number of dive centres – around 2,000 in Okinawa and 200 in Onna Village alone – but not all of these are operating at a high standard.

Tourists often only stay one night in Onna Village and their average spend is relatively low. To try to capture this market, many dive centres push try dives rather than courses – as the tourists don’t stay long enough to complete the training – and drop their prices; aiming to make money by selling lots of try dives at a low price rather than fewer, high quality fun dives. It’s so cheap, in fact, that it can sometimes be cheaper to fly to Okinawa for a dive trip rather than diving on mainland Japan. This mass, unregulated tourism, of course, is also a problem for the environment because of the high levels of damage caused by untrained divers and snorkellers. Cheap, low quality operators aren’t prioritising the protection of coral reefs and the ocean; not to mention the poor service some tourists receive from lower quality operators.

Green Fins implementation in Japan would provide practical solutions to many of the common problems faced in the area as well as working to promote high quality diving standards. Demonstrating the added value of Onna Village’s tourism product – in part, by improving the quality of the diving industry through Green Fins – will encourage tourists to spend more time and money diving in the region. Generating more money for the community will demonstrate the importance of sustainable tourism and encourage everyone to play their part in protecting coral reefs.

  

Green Fins can also address specific issues being faced by Okinawa’s diving industry. For example, fish feeding is a common practice and, as a result, the behaviour of the fish has changed and they’ve become more aggressive towards tourists. Some operators are already displaying the Green Fins “No Fish Feeding” poster to try to educate their staff and guests about best practice and environmental awareness raising sessions could bolster this knowledge even further. The Green Fins posters are free for anyone to download and use – because we want everyone to improve their environmental practices, whether or not they’re currently a member – so it’s encouraging to hear several dive centres in non-active countries are already using these materials.

Launching Green Fins in Japan is a huge opportunity. While the implementation of the country often works through a top-down approach, starting from a national level, starting work at a local level can also be hugely impactful in the right circumstances. With Onna Village, we can start with a bang; working closely with the passionate stakeholders of the Okinawa dive industry who have already shown strong support for the project before expanding nationally once success has been demonstrated. It’s incredibly exciting.

Before I go, I’d like to introduce you to Sunna: Onna Village’s Coral Fairy Mascot. Her hair is made of coral – decorated with a clownfish and a crab, no less – and her bracelet is made of sea grapes, a local delicacy! And I am officially obsessed.

  

We hope to pilot Green Fins Japan in 2020 – keep an eye out for updates (and expect to hear more about Sunna) in the near future!

The Green Fins initiative isn’t yet active in Japan but you can register your interest in advance by emailing [email protected] with a completed membership form.