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Monday, Dec. 24, 2001

Sun shines on USJ theme park as rest of city basks in gloom


Staff writer

OSAKA -- At first glance, major Osaka news stories over the past year would give even Santa Claus a bout of depression.

Unemployment at record highs, nearly 15,000 homeless on the streets, the city's humiliating defeat in the race for the 2008 Olympics in July, and, of course, Kansai International Airport, which continues to sink both literally and financially.

But despite all of the bad news, many in Osaka are smiling. The reason has to do with a belief in what is being called in local business circles the USJ effect.

Universal Studios Japan, the theme park that opened near the waterfront district in late March, has so far proved to be a giant success. Initial projections of 8 million visitors in the first year have been upwardly revised, as that figure was reached a few weeks ago, and some local economic think tanks now predict the total number of visitors will reach 12 million by the end of next March.

In mid-December, Daiwa Research Institute estimated that the economic effect to the Kansai region would reach 494 billion yen, mostly in the hotel and restaurant sectors, by the end of the first year.

Moreover, Daiwa also predicted there will be an additional 175 billion yen in ripple effect, which is defined as businesses and services that are created as a result of USJ, as well as spending by those who owe their employment directly or indirectly to USJ.

"The USJ effect will likely push the GRP (gross regional product) up by 0.4 percent," said Tadayuki Minogawa of Daiwa Research's Kansai economic research department.

A variety of reasons for the resounding success of USJ have been offered by local economists and media commentators.

First and foremost is the way the project was carried out. Although the city of Osaka is the largest investor, with a 25 percent share, in the project, Universal Studios provided the management expertise, the training, and made unconditional demands on the city as to how the project was to be carried out.

"The city of Osaka was totally clueless as to how to make the park a success, and the American side refused to bend to the Osaka way of doing things. There were lots of tense moments between the two sides when the park was being built, but the results speak for themselves," said one USJ employee who has been with the project since the beginning.

The tragedy of Sept. 11 is also cited by some as a reason for the increased attendance. A fear of getting aboard airplanes led many to cancel their autumn or winter overseas travel plans and spend their vacations in Japan, including USJ.

"I heard that some Osaka travel agencies were offering round-trip tickets from Osaka to New York for 20,000 yen, and that Hawaii's governor came to Osaka asking Japanese tourists to return. But many people I know figure that it's just easier and safer to stick around during the New Year's holiday, and travel abroad to someplace really nice next year," said Naoko Ishikawa, a 22-year-old university student who was visiting the park in mid-December for the first time.

Despite the early good news about the USJ effect, many economists remain cautious about the future. While USJ has plans to introduce new rides and attractions on a regular basis, there are still many who wonder if the park can continue to attract large numbers of repeat visitors.

In addition, acting on complaints from Wakayama Prefecture and the Hokuriku region that train connections to USJ are inconvenient, the Kansai Economic Federation is discussing with West Japan Railway Co. the possibility of easier connections from those areas to JR Osaka Station, from which USJ is only about 15 to 20 minutes away.

But for now, Osaka business and government officials are expressing satisfaction at the park's bigger than expected success, saying that, thanks to the power of Hollywood, this year was not all doom and gloom. Next year, with tens of thousands of foreign and Japanese visitors in town for the World Cup soccer matches in Osaka and Kobe, Osaka hopes the USJ effect will continue to be positive.



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