Arousing curiosity and making infection controls fun
With more than 3 million visitors annually, Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium (Motobu-cho, Kunigami-gun, Okinawa Prefecture) boasts the largest number of visitors of all Japan’s public aquariums. Until 2019, more than 30 percent of visitors were from other parts of Asia, mainly China, Taiwan, and South Korea, and nearly 60 percent were from Japanese prefectures other than Okinawa. However, in January 2020, as coronavirus suddenly began to spread, the number of visitors fell sharply. As of December 2020, Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium had already experienced three temporary closures. Let’s take a look at the efforts being made by one of Japan’s leading tourist attractions to tackle the virus.
Okinawa Commemorative National Government Park (Kaiyohaku Park) Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
* Information correct as of December 2020
Number of visitors plummets by 70% and aquarium temporarily closes three times.
Over the years, Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium has been impacted by world events and disease, including the terrorist attacks on New York City, the outbreak of SARS and new strains of influenza, and the deterioration of Japan-South Korea relations. Due to these experiences, the aquarium has contingency preparations in place that include a manual on infection control measures, stockpiling goods in case of emergency, and providing information through a multilingual app. The aquarium’s reaction to the coronavirus outbreak was in keeping with its past experiences. After cases of infection in Wuhan, China, were reported in the media at the end of December 2019, and taking into account the coming Chinese New Year in the latter half of January, the aquarium was quick to implement a number of measures, including taking stock of their supply of sanitary goods, reviewing their first-aid manual with a focus on nursing staff, instructing all employees to wear face masks and implementing a thorough practice of handwashing and hand sanitization. However, the virus quickly spread to Japan and the number of people visiting the aquarium plummeted from 250,000 in January to about 70,000 in March. Furthermore, the aquarium was forced to temporarily close three times—for about two weeks from March 2, about two months from April 7, and about one month from August 2.
Infection controls that arouse curiosity
When Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium reopened after closing in March, they sought the advice of a doctor specializing in infectious diseases to devise and introduce their own set of measures while incorporating the government’s basic policy. At the same time, the aquarium felt it was very important to maintain the spirit of entertainment. For indoor facilities such as aquariums, interior ventilation, and measures against crowding are essential for combating the spread of the virus. These issues had to be balanced with the aquarium’s original purpose of providing an exciting environment where visitors can experience marine animals up close. With this in mind, the aquarium set out to maintain social distance between visitors by designating places for visitors to stand when enjoying the large aquariums and increasing the number of aquariums of popular animals that tend to attract crowds. However, even with these new measures, the aquarium has retained a sense of playfulness. Signs using pictures of the aquarium’s fish to indicate social distance lengths and words such as “prohibited” and “attention” have been avoided, with all visitors from children to adults encouraged to enjoy themselves while ensuring their own safety. The ventilation within the aquarium has been shown to be adequate even during normal operations. However, all emergency doors are now left open during business hours to create peace of mind among visitors, who feel the breeze coming in from outside and do not feel shut in.
Exploring possibilities and providing an unprecedented way to enjoy an aquarium
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium has been proactive in using the internet and apps to combat the impact of coronavirus. For example, visitors are encouraged to install the Churaumi app ahead of their visit. The app can be used to quickly notify anyone coming into contact with an infected person while at the aquarium. The app was originally released as a five-language guide and animal picture book to support inbound tourism. Following the outbreak of coronavirus, the multilingual audio guide was discontinued and replaced with the current app. The app and the aquarium’s website also provide the real-time status of congestion within the facility, a feature that has helped to offset crowding during peak visiting times. Furthermore, the aquarium has taken on the challenge of devising new content that is only available when the aquarium is closed. This includes a behind-the-scenes online tour of the aquarium and live broadcasts of the animals through YouTube. These initiatives, unique to Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, are mainly aimed at children in special needs schools and hospital wards who, cut off from the outside world due to the risk of infection, are feeling isolated. In this way Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is assuming the educational functions of a museum as well as being a tourist attraction.
Creating a new aquarium based on experience and lessons learned
Even for Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, which has overcome numerous outbreaks of disease both in Japan and overseas, the impact of coronavirus has been bigger than expected. “We’ve learned a lot and gained a lot of experience from coronavirus, which is something very new to us. During the temporary closures, although the aquarium stopped functioning as a tourist attraction, it continued as a museum and educational facility. I think that being able to meet the challenge of coming up with new initiatives was thanks to the aquarium being empty of visitors. I also think that online tours over the internet and hybrid tourism using digital devices will become important features at aquariums in the future,” says Mr. Sato, general manager of the Okinawa Churashima Foundation’s aquarium division.