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Ecotourism Catches On in Japan

September 18, 1997

Tourists leaving the beaten track for a natural experience. (Photo: Itsuwa Town, Kumamoto Prefecture)

Ecotourism, which allows people to enjoy themselves in a natural setting while learning firsthand the importance of preserving the environment, has been attracting a lot of attention in Japan. While this trend is a direct outgrowth of people's expanding awareness of environmental issues and their increased inclination to interact with nature, the popularity of ecotourism has also been fueled by the growing number of people in search of a travel experience that departs from the typical Japanese vacation, which involves partaking of gourmet food or shopping for brand-name goods. Meanwhile, many regions that serve as ecotour destinations have come to view this trend as an opportunity to give travelers a taste of the local natural environment and cultural attractions, and in the process, to revitalize themselves.

Ecotourism at Home and Abroad
The most accessible ecotours are dolphin- and whale-watching tours. Tsuji island in Kumamoto Prefecture (on the island of Kyushu) has a two-hour educational course in which people learn about the dolphin's ecology through museum exhibits and videos, then take a boat ride to view dolphins. The course has won fans among families and a wide variety of people. The organizers have many self-imposed rules; for example, people are not allowed to get closer to the dolphins than 300 meters, and must not touch the dolphins. In August, about 6,000 participants are expected--nearly 10 times the number who participated in August 1993, the first year of the tour.

Yakushima, an island off Kyushu that is part of Kagoshima Prefecture, is on UNESCO's World Heritage list. Since 1993, the island has offered tours that allow people to experience nature through activities such as canyoning, forest walks, and snorkeling. The tours are different from typical outdoor recreation. For example, the mountain walk is not an ordinary two-hour hike, but a five-hour course narrated by a guide who is well-versed in the ecology of virgin forests. These courses are very popular. Many people choose to stay on Yakushima for several days and participate in all of the courses, thus experiencing the full range of the island's natural environment--ocean, mountains, and rivers.

Last year, citizens of Iriomote, an island at the westernmost end of Japan, established an ecotourism association. The citizens (who include inn owners, guides, and farmers) are pooling their knowledge to find ways of preserving natural and cultural resources while sharing them with other people. By forming an association, the citizens hope to change the orientation of the island's tourism from sightseeing to ecotourism. Guides are now leading island walks narrated by explanations of the island's history and its mangrove trees and other natural features. The tour organizers take very thorough measures to protect the island's environment. For example, everything that is brought in must be packed out, even leftover noodle soup (which is poured into bottles) and human waste.

There are also overseas ecotours organized by travel agencies in Japan. One such tour is a beluga-watching excursion to an Arctic Circle bay where about 3,000 of the white whales gather each summer. And one ecotour to China gives participants the chance to do volunteer forestry work alongside members of an environmental group who are engaged in a beautification program. Yet another forestry-related tour has participants planting pines and poplars in a desert region in inner Mongolia, on the middle reaches of the Yellow River. Since 1993, its first year, this tour has attracted 400 participants.

National and local governments are getting involved in ecotourism too. A prime example is the "green tourism" program, begun in 1994 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. The ministry supports a register of inns where travelers can experience agriculture, forestry, or fishing operations, as well as the construction of sightseeing facilities that bring people into contact with nature. The program, funded from national and local agriculture budgets, is designed to build bridges of mutual understanding between city dwellers and villages whose economies revolve around farming, forestry, or fishing.

Spreading the Movement Far and Wide
In Europe, the United States, and other places outside Japan, many parks have already adapted themselves to accommodate ecotours, and the concepts and principles of ecotourism have been well-established for a long time now.

At Ayers Rock in Australia, camping is permitted only within a designated resort area in the desert. And because the indigenous residents, the Aborigines, consider Ayers Rock to be sacred ground, no photographs can be taken there.

To reach the interior of Alaska's Denali National Park--home to the grizzly, moose, and a variety of other wildlife--visitors are required to take buses with instructors aboard. A portion of the sightseeing proceeds are used to fund environmental preservation.

Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and Yakushima's addition to the World Heritage list, ecotourism has been attracting a great deal of interest in Japan too. This trend has been fueled not only by growing concern for the environment, but also by the increased accessibility of overseas travel due to a strong yen and the availability of low-priced travel tickets. Yet another reason behind the ecotourism boom is that more and more people have become dissatisfied with run-of-the-mill overseas travel. And travel agents, who are troubled by the drop in prices for their services, view ecotours as a product that allows them to provide added value; they have eagerly begun planning and selling such tours.

But ecotourism is still new to Japan, and many issues remain to be addressed. For instance, ecotourism depends on guides and other personnel who have special skills and expertise. Japan does not yet have the mechanisms in place for developing and certifying these human resources. Another problem is that ecotours tend to be expensive, both because of the need to limit the number of participants in order to minimize environmental impact, and because running the tours is a lot of work. How much participation will ecotourism really attract? That remains to be seen, and insecurity about the commercial prospects is making many travel agencies hesitant about getting involved in ecotourism.

Nonetheless, environmentalists have a lot of praise for the concept of ecotourism. As a means of developing regions without damaging the environment, ecotourism has attracted strong interest among environmentalist groups. There are also high hopes in depopulated regions that ecotourism will allow residents to preserve their cultural heritage and revitalize towns and villages. Environmentalist groups, the travel industry, and other interested parties are taking a proactive approach to ensuring that ecotourism does not become just another passing fad. For example, they are working together to draft a code of ethics for this fledgling industry.

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Trends in Japan Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.
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