Surge in Tourism to Japan Threatens Famous Spots

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People aim their cameras at a passing train on Aug. 8 in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.

The rising number of foreign visitors to Japan, spurred by the relaxation of COVID-19 border controls, is expected to benefit the nation’s economy. However, there are also concerns about the return of overtourism and the harm it can cause, and countermeasures taken across the country have not proved fully effective.

Inconvenient pilgrimages

Earlier this month, crowds were seen around a railroad crossing near Kamakura Koko Mae Station on the Enoshima Electric Railway, which runs along the Shonan beach area in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. The spot is famous for its connection to the basketball manga “Slam Dunk,” and many people were photographing the trains passing by the crossing, trying to capture the scenery depicted in the manga.

“Lots of people began to come after the pandemic,” said a local man, 44. “Not everyone follows the rules, so I’m worried about accidents.”

Traffic is heavy in the vicinity, and drivers with local license plates looked annoyed at people moving onto the road for a good shot.

Security guards have been dispatched, and shrubberies at a nearby park were trimmed to encourage photographers to take photos from inside the park, but the effect has been limited.

Kamakura tourist spots such as Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine and the Kamakura Great Buddha are close to residential areas. Balancing the promotion of tourism and protecting residents’ daily lives has been a challenge.

Interference with commuting

The occupancy rate of major Kyoto hotels has exceeded 70% since March. Saki Matsuri, an early part of the Gion Festival held between July 14-17, attracted 820,000 people, the most in the past decade.

The resurgence of tourism has affected residents’ commuting, especially on city buses, which are a vital mode of transportation for local people’s shopping and hospital visits.

“Sometimes I couldn’t get off because there were so many tourists. So, I rode to the last stop and then took another bus back,” an 86-year-old Kyoto man said.

The city’s transportation bureau has increased bus services from JR Kyoto Station to tourist spots on weekends and also will stop selling one-day bus tickets — 90% of which are used by tourists — at the end of September.

Free transfer tickets from the bus to the subway will be released from autumn in an effort to channel some travelers to the subway system.

Environmental damage

In the Hokkaido town of Biei, famous for its “patchwork hills” stretching to the horizon, tourists have caused problems by entering the fields to take photos.

To prevent their crops from being trampled, farmers selected four “scenic spots” and put up signs in 2019 to guide people to take photos from there. The town also enacted an ordinance on tourism etiquette, which went into effect in April. Nevertheless, foreign visitors were seen in the wheat fields this summer during harvest season.

“We’ll make the ordinance more effective by informing tourists in a variety of ways,” a town official said.

Cape Maeda in the village of Onna, Okinawa Prefecture, is a popular diving spot known for its “blue cave.” It attracts about 500,000 visitors a year, and the environmental impact of tourists trampling on coral has become an issue.

The Cabinet Office’s Okinawa General Bureau conducted a survey in 2021 of the impact on coral reefs at the bottom of stairs leading down from the cape. It found coral groups suffering, on average, damage to about 40% of their area.

One coral group suffered damage to more than 80% of its area.

The bureau conducted a test in November in which it limited the number of divers in the area to 200 or less at a time. It proposed introducing such restrictions based on the survey, but has not been able to do so due to opposition from diving shops.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tourists take pictures in the middle of a road in Biei, Hokkaido, in July, despite an approaching car.