The fragile gems of Okinawa prefecture

Cruise lines can provide guests with the chance to explore two unique destinations by visiting Irimote Island and Northern Okinawa Island in Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture, both of which have been named on the Unesco World Natural Heritage List

The fragile gems of Okinawa prefecture
Guests can explore the unique natural environment of the islands on carefully managed tours and activities

Four islands in southwestern Japan - Amami Oshima, Tokunoshima, Northern Okinawa Island and Iriomote Island - have been added to the Unesco World Natural Heritage List, which recognises the value of some of the most exceptional natural sites around the world.  

Millions of years ago, these small islands were separated from the Eurasian continent, leaving the species living on the islands completely isolated from the wider world. Over time, this isolation has led to the development of a wholly independent ecosystem. Rare species that are entirely unique to the islands, such as the Iriomote Leopard Cat and Okinawa Rail, have marked them out as possessing “outstanding universal value in the unique topographical and geological features, ecosystems, and natural habitats of endangered flora and fauna”, qualifying them for recognition in the Unesco World Natural Heritage list. 

However, the same features that have given rise to this unique environment also make it vulnerable to destruction. As the areas are geographically isolated, the native animals and plants have never had to encounter the dangers that other species can pose. If these non-native species find their way onto the islands, they could very easily disrupt the careful balance that has been established over millions of years, necessitating the implementation of strict measures to prevent this scenario. Similarly, measures have been put in place to mitigate the dangers that roads pose to animals. Because Iriomote Island regulates the capture and collection of animals and plants, local nature conservation organisations are running awareness campaigns to ensure that the only thing guests take with them after their visits are their memories. 

Thanks to these measures and a sensitive approach that protects the fragility of these unique islands, cruise lines and guests can enjoy the outstanding value they offer. Two of the islands, Northern Okinawa Island and Iriomote Island, are located within the popular cruise destination of Okinawa prefecture.  

Northern Okinawa can be accessed by car and bus from the port of Motobu, which has a 420-metre-long berth. Once they arrive in the area, guests can enjoy a range of activities that will let them explore the unique natural environment, including nature hiking, mangrove kayaking and canyoneering. 

Iriomote Island, on the other hand, can be accessed from the port of Ishigaki via a ferry service. Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau, a tourism promotion organisation, and related organisations are also preparing for the acceptance of small expedition ships so that they can directly call at Iriomote Island in the future. This gives guests plenty of time to explore the island through kayaking, snorkelling, diving, hiking and mangrove cruising. 

With the careful management of tourism to these areas, monitoring the impact on local wildlife, and by showing sensitivity to the fragile environment and local residents’ lifestyle, cruise guests can continue to enjoy the unique environment of these islands for years to come. 

To learn more about the ports and attractions of Okinawa, visit 

This article was first published in the 2022 issue of Cruise & Ferry Itinerary Planning. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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Alex Smith
By Alex Smith
21 January 2022

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