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Japan to Restart Ultra-Rare Hovercraft Ferry Service

Oita Prefecture's new hovercraft fleet will be one of the last in the world

Griffon

Published Sep 12, 2023 7:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Japanese prefecture of Oita has taken delivery of a passenger hovercraft from a UK-based manufacturer, restoring one of the world's few public hovercraft routes to service after a long hiatus. 

Oita's airport used to have a commercially-operated hovercraft, the Oita Hover Ferry, which delivered passengers across the harbor to the city's downtown. In 2009, as travel and service industries were buffeted by the Great Recession, the company closed. Hovercraft have notoriously high fuel and maintenance costs, and the number of paying travelers was not high enough to sustain the operation. 

The original Oita hovercraft was a well-known local fixture, and the service route included a dramatic drift through an S-curve route next to the Oita airport, memorialized in many videos on social media. 

14 years later, Oita is about to revive its hovercraft service. In a ceremony held Friday, the government of Oita Prefecture took delivery of its first new, modern hovercraft built by UK manufacturer Griffon Hoverworks. Oita has ordered three, and plans to start passenger-carrying operations with its new fleet next year.

The high-speed craft will resume a 15 nautical mile route between Oita Airport and downtown Oita. The trip takes about an hour by bus, but aboard a 45-knot Griffon hovercraft, it will take just half an hour.

When it resumes service, the Oita hovercraft ferry route will be the only operation of its kind in Japan. It may be one of just two passenger hovercraft services left in the world, along with UK commercial operator Hovertravel, which uses a nearly-identical Griffon 12000TD. The mode of transport took off in popularity in the 1960s, but has declined due to its high operating cost when compared with conventional ground and waterborne transportation. 

Oita hopes that the novelty of its unique hovercraft service will become a tourist attraction in itself, offsetting the higher cost.

“Passengers can travel more quickly to and from the airport, and they can also take in the scenery from the vessel, such as the steam from Beppu hot spring resorts,” a prefectural official told Yomiuri Shimbun.