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In Okinawa, the show may not go on

Ocean Expo Park in Motobu, Okinawa Prefecture, was to have hosted a new Universal Studios Japan theme park.

TOKYO -- The operator of the Universal Studios Japan theme park is having second thoughts about its plan to expand into Okinawa Prefecture.

     USJ is now likely to focus its resources on its thriving entertainment complex in the western Japanese city of Osaka, at least for the time being, instead of building a new theme park in the southern island prefecture, according to people familiar with the matter.

     Media reports about USJ's change of heart are causing dismay in Okinawa, which was thrilled at the prospect of a new theme park giving a boost to the prefecture's key tourism industry. USJ on Thursday issued a statement saying it is considering all possibilities, but it is expected to inform the central government and local authorities in Okinawa of its intention to drop the project.

     The company had planned to build its second theme park inside the national Ocean Expo Park in the seaside resort town of Motobu on Okinawa Island. Both the central and local governments backed the project. They are upset by USJ's move to scuttle the project.

     The central government had hoped the theme park would bring in jobs, and included support for the park's expansion in its draft budget for fiscal 2016. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said it was up to USJ to decide whether or not to proceed. The same day, the theme park operator to told the government it had not yet made a decision.

     The news has bewildered the business community in Motobu. The town's tourist association said it is trying to find out what is going on. It complains that USJ has never briefed the town on the project. "We have only been kept confused," said one indignant association official.

Keep them coming

After U.S. cable TV giant Comcast acquired 51% of USJ's outstanding shares for about 184 billion yen last November, the company began a review of the expansion plan. The review concluded that the new park might not draw enough visitors to justify the 60 billion yen ($521 million) price tag.

     If USJ decides against the Okinawa expansion, it may put more money into its Osaka park, which is on the track to attract nearly 14 million people in the year through March. That would be the second straight year of record visitor numbers. Over the past three years, the number of admissions to the Osaka complex has jumped by 4 million, outpacing growth at Tokyo Disney Resort, the most popular theme park in Japan.

     USJ's park in Osaka will mark its 15th anniversary in March with the opening of a new "Jurassic Park" roller coaster. The company spent about 10 billion yen to build what it claims is the world's longest "flying" roller coaster. USJ has also decided to introduce a new attraction in cooperation with Nintendo that will feature Mario and the game maker's other popular characters. The cost of that attraction will run into tens of billions of yen.

     USJ CEO Jean-Louis Bonnier is confident about the Osaka park's growth prospects.  At a Feb. 1 press conference, he said the company can bring in an additional 3-4 million visitors annually.


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