Hachijojima aims for sightseeing splash with whale sightings

Courtesy of the town of Hachijo, the Hachijojima Tourism Association, and Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology’s Laboratory of Cetacean Biology
A humpback whale breaches off Hachijojima Island in 2018.

After suffering a tourism wipeout during the pandemic, Hachijojima Island has found a new spectacle to get its visitors back: whale watching. In addition to working with Mizuho Bank, Ltd. to develop an artificial intelligence-based system for monitoring humpback whales, the local government is seeking to attract tourists from overseas with its first non-Japanese tourism ambassador.

Located about 290 kilometers south of central Tokyo, the island is blessed with a mild climate and tourist draws such as hot springs.

According to the town’s industry and tourism department, the number of tourists to the island in fiscal 2019 reached about 87,000. That number dropped to about 39,000, or by roughly 50%, in fiscal 2020, when the novel coronavirus spread across world and caused major disruptions to travel. In fiscal 2021, the number stood at about 51,000, still far below the pre-pandemic level.

To help pull in more tourists to the island, the government for the town of Hachijo, which has jurisdiction over the island, set its sights on whale watching, which has been gaining popularity in recent years.

Humpback whales are often spotted around Okinawa Prefecture and the Ogasawara Islands between November and May of each year, and since 2015, they have also been sighted around Hachijojima. The marine mammals can even be seen directly from the island, without the need to first board a boat. In fact, many tourists to the island, as they drive around or bathe in hot springs, have seen the whales jump up out of the ocean and into the air.

The town has been studying the ecology and population of humpbacks jointly with Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, among other institutions.

AI for observation

The town government has signed an agreement with Mizuho Bank, which operates a branch office on the island, for support in promoting the island’s digital transformation in a wide range of fields, including disaster prevention and tourism.

Under the agreement, which also covers the study of whales locally, the town will increase the number of observation cameras installed on the island from one to five, and use an AI system to recognize splashes caused by whales in order to inform tourists of the whales’ location.

Meanwhile, the town is keeping a close eye on the global tourism industry as it recovers, hoping to attract visitors from overseas.

It will develop a tourism app jointly with Mizuho Bank by the end of the next fiscal year that it aims to provide in multiple languages. Additionally, the town intends to improve communications infrastructure on the island to attract smaller-scale international conferences.

“We want to cooperate with the town not only to get tourists back but also to help it to thrive in a more international world by utilizing digital technologies,” said Yasuhiro Sato, 38, who is in charge of the island project at Mizuho Bank.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Asta Zukauskaite, dressed in a kimono, promotes Hachijojima at an event in Itabashi Ward, Tokyo, in October 2022.

1st non-Japanese promotes the island

In August last year, the town appointed Lithuanian Asta Zukauskaite to be Miss Hachijojima, its first non-Japanese tourism ambassador.

As a native of the Baltic country that used to be part of the former Soviet Union, Zukauskaite says she was impressed by Japan’s recovery from its defeat in World War II. In the past, she also studied at Osaka University as an exchange student.

The town government, in its search for a non-Japanese tourism ambassador, determined that she was what they needed to reach a broader audience. She now attends events and local products fairs to communicate the charms of Hachijojima on and outside the island, always wearing a kimono of ki-hachijo cloth, a traditional woven fabric produced on the island.

She says that the island’s abundant nature is similar to that of her homeland, and that she wants to help the island so that she might repay the warmth with which she has been accepted there. She has created an Instagram account to showcase the island’s charms both for those living in Japan and those abroad.

“We will continue to strive to promote our island through new methods so as to attract more tourists,” said the deputy mayor of Hachijo.