Responsible Travel in a Time of Overtourism

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How can we all do our bit on World Tourism Day? 

In a week when the world’s oldest tour operator, Thomas Cook, has collapsed and Greta Thunberg has chastised world leaders at the UN climate summit in New York for failing to act on climate change, it has never been more necessary for tourism to consider how best to manage the impacts of its activities. 

Since being a closed country for 220 years, Japan is now showcasing its unique culture, preserved heritage and iconic sights to the world. The government – which plans for tourism income to offset declines in other sectors of the Japanese economy – has established a new target of 60 million arrivals by 2030 (there were 5 million in 2003).  

According to the Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO), The International Tourist Tax of 1,000yen implemented from January 2019 is meant to generate revenue to create a ‘stress-free tourist environment’ but will it be enough to stop degradation of Japanese culture and tradition?  

InsideJapan Tours send around 12,000 visitors a year to Japan and we know the most popular destinations for first timers are still Tokyo, Kyoto and HakoneWe’ve also witnessed first-hand how the low-rise ancient capital Kyoto is cracking under the sheer volume of tourists (15.5m visitors in 2017which dwarfs its population of 1.5 million.  

Like Venice and Barcelona, the problems are becoming deep-set and citizens have coined the term kankō kōgai or ‘tourism pollution’ to describe the mass of visitors who rarely understand or follow the deeply-regarded cultural etiquette of Japan. In 2017, the Kyoto city bureau even published a pamphlet of social faux pas titled Akimahen of Kyoto’’ to prevent offence and mindless behaviour, like chasing down trainee geishas for selfies.  

So, how do we help people to visit Japan and see popular destinations without loving them to death?  

Honen-in Temple in Kyoto

Think about alternatives   

Travelling to popular places in peak season creates a huge burden on facilities and resources. If you want to see cherry blossom, consider finding other places where the experience is just as spectacular and the local economy will hugely benefit from your trust dollars.  For example, Kinosaki Onsen is a beautiful town renowned for its hot spring baths and cherry-lined canal; it’s lit up at night creating an 18th century atmosphere, plus, you get that wonderful feeling of discovering somewhere! 

Get a local guide  

Employing a guide has so many benefits. They’ll skirt the tourist traps, they know the best times of day to experience the top attractions, and their insight will enrich your understanding.  

Ito Eiichi, who coordinates our English-speaking guides in Japan, describes the significance of having a local guide. ‘I think the greatest impact we have is working together to act as a bridge between English speaking visitors and the local Japanese communities. I love helping people to share their stories, thoughts and cultures.” 

Do your research and learn some language   

We still believe that you can enjoy the magic of Kyoto in spring with some thoughtful preparation and a map. With preparation and planning you can enjoy popular places without ending up stuck among the crowds. We give our clients information about places to visit, some basic phrases and cultural etiquette tips – your efforts have a big impact on a people who pride themselves on omotenashi hospitality. 

Choose wisely

We’ve been working with some of our independent places to stay for 20 years, such the Yamaichi Bekkan ryokan where the mother and son owners welcome our customers with the same omotenashi hospitality as two decades before. These make for a more memorable trip and are better for local economies than Japan’s bland business hotels.  

Seek out experiences such as Satoyama Cycling tours in Takayama, whose guides integrate clients with the local community. Taku Yamada from Satoyama Cycling reflects, We have had many more overseas tourists coming cycling with us. This is great for us, but also for the local communities in and around Takayama as it means more people are coming through, learning about their way of life, and promoting our local culture when they go back home!’ 

Support charities  

We’ve partnered with Second Harvest Japan to provide donations for their food distribution projects in Tokyo, offering our clients the option to donate remaining credit from their transport cards when they leave Japan. Since August 2018 this scheme has raised over 2million yen (nearly £15,000) to support the charity’s work to link food waste with those in need. This equates to 83,000 meals.  

However you travel to Japan, be part of the force for good where tourists can bolster the local economy and reduce the steady flow of young people from rural to urban areas. We’ll continue to reduce the visitor impact on overcrowded destinations and link our visitors with locals who will give our clients insights into Japanese culture and memories which will last a lifetime.  

On my two-wheeled journey around Kyoto, I met an elderly Kyoto-resident selling homemade painted pebbles to tourists. They weren’t particularly beautiful, nor what I wanted to spend my yen on but as a single traveller it was great to have a chance to speak to a local in my broken-Japanese, and for him to practice the English he’d been learning for just these moments. This brief interaction left us both smiling. On my bedside table at home this little painted pebble reminds me of this one-time meeting, or ichigo ichie as the Japanese would say, which travelling is all about; sharing a positive moment which enriches all our lives. 

Sophie Walker

Sustainability Coordinator at InsideAsia Tours


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