February 2024 | Japan Media Review

As visitor numbers surge, is Japan doing enough to tackle overtourism?

Shibuya, Tokyo - Photo by Julio Shiiki

On December 11, 1993, the ancient forest of Yakushima in Kagoshima Prefecture, the Shirakami Mountains in Akita and Aomori Prefectures, Horyuji Buddhist temple in Nara Prefecture, and Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture were all registered as either natural or cultural World Heritage assets by UNESCO – the first sites in Japan to be given that status. The World Heritage list is a compendium of locations of special cultural or physical significance. The purpose of the project is conservation. The sites should be protected for posterity, and if they are subjected to development or other treatment that threaten their integrity, the registration can be revoked. Right now, Japan has 20 cultural assets and five natural assets in 27 prefectures. 

An article in the Asahi Shimbun reported on a November 25 symposium where Hiroshi Onodera, the director of the Yakushima Environmental and Cultural Foundation, described the effects UNESCO registration had had on the island. The designated forest is famous for a cedar tree that is believed to be thousands of years old, but prior to registration, Yakushima had low name recognition. Locals who described the island had to say it was “next to Tanegashima,” another island that was more well known. Before registration, visitors to Yakushima numbered about 240,000 a year. By 2003 the number exceeded 300,000 and then peaked in 2007 at 400,000. 

Traditionally, most residents of Yakushima were farmers, but after the UNESCO registration, tourism became the main source of income, and as the number of visitors increased every year, problems followed. The pathway that leads to the famous cedar became overcrowded and damaged. Sometimes there were so many people that movement became impossible. During the Covid pandemic, traffic decreased considerably, but now numbers have rebounded to previous levels, spurred mainly by foreign tourists. There has been discussion about limiting visitors to the island, but to date no action has been taken.

It is obvious that the UNESCO designation made Yakushima a popular travel destination. In other cases, the value for tourism is more qualified. The Asahi reports that Horyuji's World Heritage status has limits, since it is located some distance from the city of Nara, home to the famous deer park and the Great Buddha of Todaiji. Nevertheless, the temple raised ¥150 million for maintenance and repairs through crowdfunding, and its management said that would not have been possible without the UNESCO imprimatur. The people in charge of Himeji Castle say that while visitors have increased more than threefold since the designation, they don't spend enough money either at the castle or in the surrounding area to make much of a difference. In response, the castle’s keepers have installed special lighting to attract visitors who might then decide to spend the night in the vicinity. 

Whichever way you look at it, tourism is the main reason behind seeking the designation in Japan, even if tourism is antithetical to the concept of the World Heritage project. If you ask people who live and work near a World Heritage site, they will invariably say that the purpose of the designation is economic stimulation, but while some appreciate the attention, others do not. That paradox exemplifies the general reaction to Japan’s surging reputation as a top international sightseeing destination.

In 2023, inbound tourism recovered to 79% of levels in 2019 – the year before the pandemic set in. About 25 million foreign visitors together spent more than ¥5 trillion, which works out to ¥212,000 per visitor —¥53,000 more than each visitor spent in 2019. About 34% of this money was spent on accommodation. Last July, the Asahi surveyed a number of hotel chains that cater to foreigners. One that runs 26 hotels nationwide reported that 90% of its guests in April were foreigners. During the pandemic, the overall occupancy rate was only 15%, despite room charges that were priced as low as ¥15,000. In July, occupancy had risen to 70%, with room charges averaging ¥23,000 a night. Other hotels also reported intense foreigner patronage despite sudden spikes in price. The answer for this seeming paradox is simple: the exchange rate in the past year has greatly favored people with dollars and other foreign currencies. Even hotels whose occupancy rates did not return to pre-Covid levels made more money because they could charge much more. One research company told the Asahi that on average, room charges nationwide in June had increased by 20% compared to June 2019. 

But whatever success one can infer from these numbers, it is undermined by the labor shortage, which is particularly serious in the hospitality sector. In April 2023 a Teikoku Data Bank survey found that 75.5% of the 27,663 hotels, inns, and other accommodations that responded did not have enough regular employees, with 78% saying they didn’t have enough non-regular employees, meaning part-timers and contract workers. Only the food service industry has a worse labor situation. Consequently, while tourists are out in force, these accommodations have to reduce the number of rooms and other services they offer. They’re making money, but they could be making a lot more if they had enough help. 

Nevertheless, the labor shortage is not the first problem that comes to mind when thinking about overtourism. In most cases, the problem is taken to refer to the overabundance of tourists in any given place. The destination where this problem has been most widely publicized is Kyoto. A common illustration of the issue is how locals in Kyoto cannot take public buses because they are already filled with tourists and their luggage. An NHK report on the problem last fall quoted one resident who said she couldn't get to the hospital because all the buses on her route were filled to capacity with sightseers. 

NHK said that Kyoto has stopped selling all-day passes for only buses and instead expanded the passes to include subways, hoping that tourists will opt for rail service, but so far, the move has had little effect. The over-crowding has spilled over into the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture, specifically the town of Ine, whose main attraction is its 230 residential houses erected right on the sea with attached docks for boats. Thanks to social media, the town of 2,000 received 400,000 visitors in 2023, along with the attendant sightseeing buses. Residents say that tourists often unknowingly walk through private property to take photos and even occupy the middle of the street, blocking traffic. The bad publicity from Ine paints overtourism as an issue of poor manners, since the only solution the town has come up with is to put up signs asking visitors to behave. The NHK report also mentions an agricultural region of Hokkaido that's overrun with tourists who want to take photos of the stunning scenery, as well as the train crossing in Kamakura made famous in the internationally popular basketball-themed manga and anime Slam Dunk.

Last October, the central government notified railway companies that they must similarly adjust fares during periods when tourist congestion is expected to spike so as to prompt users to ride at other times. They have also approved a proposal that will allow taxis from other areas to work in sightseeing spots during peak hours. Taxis are normally not allowed to pick up fares in places outside their assigned area. 

One expert told the Asahi that the authorities need to think more carefully about how to solve the problem. Many developers are endeavoring to build new hotels in popular destinations, but that would likely drive property values higher and limit housing options for locals, perhaps even driving them to other areas. Also, he notes that the central government's approach is sometimes at odds with itself. On the one hand it offers piecemeal solutions and on the other sets its inbound tourist goal at 60 million a year, which is even higher than it is now. 

But even local governments embody this paradox. In an interview with the Asahi that appeared on December 7, Daisuke Abe, a professor of urban planning at Ryukoku University, said that before trying to tackle the problem of overtourism, officials have to make sure they understand the definition of the term. Strictly speaking, it means a volume of visitors that exceeds a given area's capacity to handle it, thus negatively affecting the quality of life of people who live there. Abe has issues with most media coverage of overtourism, since it tends to focus on people's feelings, which are something you can't solve through legislature or planning. If you think visitors are not behaving in the right way, you can't simply tell them to behave better because they likely don't think they're doing anything wrong. You have to create situations in which such behavior isn't manifested. In Kyoto, for instance, he advocates establishing separate bus routes for visitors and locals, since the destinations for each group tend to be different. He also believes that it's self-defeating to encourage visitor accommodations in city centers, since it drives out residents. A sightseeing spot that does not have a native presence quickly loses its allure, since it essentially turns the place into a theme park. Due to Kyoto's vertical administrative structure, the sections of the government that handle tourism do not communicate with those that handle city planning, and since tourism staff are always advocating for more accommodations, the two entities will always work at cross purposes. 

Even when the goal is fairly straightforward, such as limiting the number of climbers on Mt. Fuji, whose environment has been seriously damaged by overtourism, it can take some legalistic sleight-of-hand to satisfy everyone involved. A December 20 article in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun described a new regulation proposed by Yamanashi Prefecture that would limit the number of climbers past Station Five on its side of the mountain to 4,000 a day and prohibit climbing at night. The problem with the regulation is that it conflicts with national road laws that prohibit the banning of traffic on public thoroughfares. In principle, the prefecture cannot ban climbers from using the prefectural road on its side of the mountain, so what they've done is remove its designation as a prefectural road and made it private. They propose to charge the 4,000 climbers (as well as travelers who have reservations at accommodations on the mountain) a fee to use the road, grant merchants and others special permission to access the area between the fifth station and the summit.

Another related problem that requires a more nuanced solution is the use of minpaku, or private residences that are rented out on a short-term basis to travelers. Even before AirBnB, which is strictly regulated in Japan, minpaku were fairly common, though in most cases, owners or people who otherwise supervised the residences were present on-site at all times. The problem now is that with tourist numbers increasing, more private residence owners are exploiting loopholes in the law to rent out rooms in popular locations to tourists, much to the chagrin of local residents. In Tokyo, the problem has become especially prevalent since each ward has its own rules regarding minpaku usage. Companies have zeroed in on those wards with less strict rules and bought up or built accommodations in residential neighborhoods that they let to tourists. 

Another recent Asahi article explained a lawsuit brought by residents of the Oji neighborhood of Kita Ward in Tokyo against a company that built a three-story, 12-unit minpaku facility right in their midst, saying they weren't properly consulted beforehand. The residents are afraid visitors will make a lot of noise and not follow guidelines for trash disposal. A company representative told the Asahi that it would ask guests to follow the rules. The local government says there is little it can do because the ward has no specific laws restricting minpaku. From November 2022 to November 2023, the number of minpaku units in Kita Ward increased from 159 to 227, and the relevant department regularly receives related complaints from residents. As one expert told the newspaper, homeowners associations of condominiums and apartment buildings can and often do prohibit members from using their properties as minpaku. But neighborhood associations usually don't have the authority to keep property owners from doing the same. It is up to the local government, and many don't have the relevant laws in place.

The irony is that tourists who choose the minpaku or AirBnB option often do so in order to interact with locals on a more direct, casual level. But residents may not feel the same way. As pointed out The Last Tourist, a U.S. documentary about the harmful effects of tourism, visitors to foreign countries must understand local customs and feelings so as not to inconvenience or exploit those residents when they travel. But the question of manners is a two-way street. Those who profit from tourism must work to ensure not only that residents' lives are not adversely affected, but that the travelers come to appreciate the special qualities of the place they visit in a way that is meaningful for all involved.

Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for the Number 1 Shimbun.