Japan takes action on overtourism

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The systematic implementation of Japan’s Tourism Strategy by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has positioned Japan as a global tourism hub, drawing millions of visitors annually to its cultural and natural landmarks. The tourist influx into major centres like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto has intensified concentration of tourists and there are growing calls that there are just too many.

In response, the Sustainable Tourism Promotion Headquarters released a policy document Towards a Sustainable Tourism Developed Country in 2018. The guidelines propose four key measures for achieving sustainable tourism development — tourism destination management in tandem with local stakeholders, tourism destination management based on accurate and comprehensive information, promoting communication with local residents, and effective provision of information to visitors.

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted the global tourism industry, including Japan, making it challenging to assess the full impact and implementation of the Towards a Sustainable Tourism Developed Country strategy. The timing of the pandemic shortly after the strategy’s adoption likely led to deviations from the original plan, as tourism authorities focused on crisis management and recovery efforts rather than long-term strategy implementation.

As Japan witnesses a resurgence in tourism after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new initiative titled ‘Comprehensive Measures for the Prevention and Mitigation of Overtourism’ addresses challenges related to the new wave of tourism. Its focus is on addressing excessive congestion and etiquette violations, attracting visitors to regional areas and promoting tourism in collaboration with local residents.

These strategies require examination of their economic impact. It is crucial to weigh the economic advantages of tourism against the potential disadvantages for local Japanese communities.
The strategy encourages diverting tourists from buses to railways, particularly in Kyoto, which aligns with the objective of reducing congestion and recognises the need for alternative transportation modes. But there are challenges due to Kyoto’s underdeveloped railway system.

The pilot introduction of ‘Hands-Free Tourism’ — luggage storage and delivery services that aim to reduce the need for tourists to carry around heavy luggage — shows innovation but lacks specificity on implementation and anticipated impact. Details of the rollout and expected outcomes would help policy transparency. Support for cashless transactions in over 20 regions acknowledges the diverse needs of international tourists but there are challenges related to ‘cash only’ services and language barriers.

The endorsement of ‘mobility as a service’ — a gateway that allows users to plan, book and pay for multiple types of travel services on one platform — along with ride-hailing apps and smart lanes at airports show a forward-looking approach, but would benefit from exploring broader applications beyond airports.

Diverting tourists from buses to railways seems a promising measure for reducing congestion. Other measures may improve travel convenience but may not address congestion in tourist hubs. Compared to pre-pandemic measures, the new strategy lacks proposals for addressing problems caused by cultural differences. Engagement with local communities and promotion of information campaigns directed at tourists could reduce etiquette violations.

The initiative to promote tourism in regional areas, which seeks to stress the charm of regional destinations and create special experiences nationwide, holds promise in addressing overtourism. The identification of 11 model regions and the emphasis placed on enhancing their core values is one approach. The creation of unique experiences, such as ancient spiritual encounters in Tottori and Shimane and enhancing the attractiveness of national parks, reflects a commitment to preserving natural assets.

This approach could help to divert tourists to lesser-known regions, alleviating pressure on crowded hubs and redirecting tourism revenue to remote areas. The success of these measures will depend on striking a balance between attracting tourists and ensuring sustainable economic growth for local communities.

Failure to achieve this equilibrium can result in negative outcomes. The sudden influx of tourists has the potential to overwhelm local infrastructure and services, including transportation and waste management, thereby diminishing the quality of life for residents. To counteract this, investment in sustainable infrastructure that supports tourism while mitigating environmental impact can not only improve the tourism experience but also positively impact local communities.

Overtourism can trigger social tensions, evidenced by situations such as in Kyoto, where residents may feel marginalised in their own city, leading to conflicts and a breakdown of community cohesion. Implementing regulations and policies that regulate tourist numbers, safeguard cultural and natural heritage, and encourage responsible tourism behaviour are crucial for mitigating the adverse effects of tourism.

Involving local residents in policy discussions across 20 regions reflects a commitment to inclusive decision-making and sustainable tourism. Creating pioneering models through collaboration aligns with the need for innovative solutions, contributing to solving the problems of overtourism and promoting resilient, sustainable tourism governance. But the economic benefits for local communities must be considerable to outweigh the perceived downsides. Ensuring that tourism initiatives align with the needs and preferences of local communities is key to fostering positive outcomes.

The measures Japan’s adopted are meaningful steps towards achieving sustainable tourism. The initiatives to redirect tourists to regional areas, foster collaboration with local residents and destination marketing organisations and adopt innovative solutions demonstrate a positive trajectory. But creating sustainable tourism is an evolving process that requires continuous adaptation. These efforts are essential in shaping a tourism landscape for Japan that is not only resilient but also sustainable in the long run.

The ongoing policy debate needs to consider trends in tourism dynamics. Balancing economic benefits with the wellbeing of local communities is a delicate task to navigate. Striking the right balance will ensure that Japan’s tourism policies not only spur economic growth but also contribute to the overall prosperity and harmony of its diverse communities.

Olesia Silanteva is a doctoral candidate in International and Advanced Japanese Studies at the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Tsukuba, Japan.

This article originally appeared here at East Asia Forum.

Image sourced from Pexels here.

Updated:  18 July 2024/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Services Team