As international tourism in Japan steadily approaches pre-pandemic levels, with over 2 million visitors for the fourth consecutive month in September, the nation is grappling with the dual-edged sword of the tourism boom. While this resurgence bodes well for the tourism and hospitality sectors that faced challenges during Japan’s prolonged COVID-19 lockdowns, it also brings with it the pressing issues of overtourism and its repercussions.
Tourist Influx Puts Pressure on Local Communities
- According to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), September’s tourist numbers reached just over 96% of 2019 levels, which marked a period before global travel restrictions.
- Popular tourist destinations like Mount Fuji are already witnessing the adverse effects of overtourism. The iconic mountain is experiencing issues such as pollution and human traffic jams on its trails.
- Prime Minister Fumio Kishida noted that the increase in tourism has had a disruptive impact on the daily lives of local residents in certain regions and during specific periods. Issues like poor etiquette by tourists have added to the concerns.
Addressing Overtourism: New Proposals and Measures
Enhancing Infrastructure and Transportation
- The Japanese authorities have outlined plans to bolster infrastructure, including the expansion of bus and taxi fleets in popular cities, to manage the rising number of visitors.
- Particular emphasis is being placed on regions experiencing significant tourist influx during specific times, such as Niseko and Hokkaido during ski season.
- To ease transportation congestion, there are considerations to establish direct bus routes from key stations to popular tourist destinations and to introduce higher fare prices during peak hours.
Diversifying Tourist Destinations
- The tourism ministry is keen on diverting tourism from overcrowded hubs like Tokyo and Kyoto.
- Building on previous initiatives, the government aims to promote 11 ‘model destinations’, such as Ise-Shima in Mie Prefecture and eastern Hokkaido, emphasizing their natural and rural attractions.
- This move intends to alleviate pressure on traditional tourist hotspots, distributing visitors more evenly across the country.
Implementing Restrictions and Bans
- One proposed measure is to increase train fares specifically for tourists, intended as a deterrent rather than a profit-making mechanism. This would help in managing congestion on public transport.
- Issues like tourists trespassing onto private land to take photographs have led to discussions on implementing stricter rules, including potential bans on photography in specific areas.
- Reflecting on past measures, towns like Sasaquri have previously discouraged non-Japanese tourist groups, underscoring the challenges that a surge in tourists can pose to local communities.
Hatsukaichi Leads the Way with Tourist Tax
The city of Hatsukaichi, located in Hiroshima Prefecture, is pioneering an innovative approach to sustainable tourism. The city, home to the UNESCO World Heritage site, Itsukushima Shrine, introduced a local tax on tourists, a move not seen before in Japan’s major tourist cities.
A Unique Tax for Preservation
- Effective from 1st October, visitors to Miyajima Island, where the shrine is located, are being charged a 100 yen ($0.67) fee. This fee is incorporated into the boarding ticket for the island’s ferries.
- Itsukushima Shrine, renowned for its iconic “floating” torii gate, was established in 593 and has since become a symbol of Japan’s rich history and culture.
- The tax proceeds will fund the maintenance of tourist facilities, preservation of cultural assets, and promotion of ecotourism, aiming for a holistic approach to sustainable tourism.
A Sustainable Vision for Tourism
Officials in Hatsukaichi recognize the dual responsibility of accommodating tourists and ensuring the well-being of local residents. Shunji Mukai, an official of the city’s planning and coordination division for Miyajima, expressed the importance of preserving the area’s natural beauty and cultural heritage for future generations. With the visitor tax, Hatsukaichi hopes to inspire other tourist-dependent municipalities to adopt similar strategies, emphasizing the significance of sustainable tourism in the face of overtourism challenges.
Japan’s proactive stance in addressing overtourism has been noteworthy. As the global tourism industry rebounds, many countries are witnessing a sudden influx of international tourists, leading to an array of socio-economic and environmental challenges. In the face of this global phenomenon, Japan’s approach provides valuable insights and potential models for other nations grappling with similar concerns.
Looking Ahead: The Future of Tourism in Japan
As Japan continues to welcome international visitors, its proactive measures set a strong foundation for sustainable growth. Future initiatives may include further technological innovations to manage tourist flows, increased international collaboration to share best practices, and more extensive public awareness campaigns promoting responsible tourism.
The journey towards sustainable tourism is ongoing, but Japan’s endeavors provide hope and a roadmap for nations worldwide. By prioritizing both the interests of local communities and the needs of tourists, Japan is carving a path toward a future where tourism flourishes in harmony with nature and culture.