Is Japan’s tourism industry sustainable?

By Chiara Terzuolo

Sustainability is a complex issue, encompassing social disruption, economic issues and environmental impact. Over the last five years observing the “inbound boom,” it is becoming increasingly clear that Japan is creating an unsustainable situation.

The term kanko kogai —tourism pollution—has been making headlines in both local and international papers for some time. In terms of sheer numbers Japan’s expensive tourism promotion schemes certainly appear to have been effective, the pressure on major cities and limited effect on more rural areas is clear.

Anyone riding the packed subway in Tokyo (while tripping over giant suitcases), attempting to catch a bus in Kyoto or trying to make their way through the shopping streets of Osaka can attest to this. While visitors have grown dramatically, local infrastructure has not been upgraded to keep pace. Sustainable tourism destinations do not only need to evolve to ensure visitors can get around, but also protect the needs of locals, who should be able to go about their business without too much interference.

Visitor patterns and economic growth are unsurprisingly concentrated in major cities and certain rural destinations that are already well known, such as Shirakawago. While some seasonal sightseeing spots further out manage to get visitors during peak season, the effects are minimal. Tourists stay just long enough to take a few photos, without stopping to spend the night or much needed money in these rural areas.

People in many rural areas I speak with are pinning their hopes on tourism to save their economies. Sadly their efforts are often misguided, focusing on promotion without making the changes in accommodation, transport accessibility and availability of multilingual information needed to ensure visitors have a positive experience and spread the word.

There are some success stories, as destinations that have invested in showing the very best of their traditions and improving access, such as the postal towns along the Nakasendo trail, are now popular destinations for visitors from the highly desired oubeigo (American, European and Australian) market, even with minimal promotion.

On a national scale, tourism is being touted as one of the ways to save and boost Japan’s drooping economy. But there are quite a few economic conundrums in this rush to reach 40 million visitors by 2020.

Vast tourism promotion budgets are being used unwisely, as all those ads, influencers, videos and new websites do not come cheap. The JNTO pumps huge amounts of money into promoting Japan as a destination to overseas markets, but unfortunately most of these projects only last for one year. It is common for websites or videos to be created at great cost, only to then be abandoned (or not allowed to be reused) once the fiscal year is up.

As JNTO advisor David Atkinson points out in an interview with Toyo Keizai, many areas seeking tourists are under the impression that as long as they create social media content or websites, visitors will make their way to their locality. Large portions of tourism budgets go to the broadly-termed hasshin (information transmission),an increasingly unnecessary and old-fashioned promotion method.

If visitors are able to get to a region or location, knowledge about the area will go up organically via social media or review sites. It is far more important to spend on upgrading infrastructure, in particular transportation, signage and activities—not just putting up stone markers in Japanese which (surprise!) visitors can’t read.

There are government programs intended to assist localities in improving their assistance for international visitors, but unfortunately these are often run by people who have limited experience with international-level tourism. I recently saw the results for a project to improve ryokan and old-school hotels to welcome non-Japanese visitors. One of the “model cases” showed changing the placement of plugs for vacuum cleaners as a major win—although how that will improve the experience for visitors is unclear.

All of these projects are funded by taxes, and come with eye-popping price tags. For 2019 the Japan Tourism Agency alone was assigned a budget of just under 7.2 trillion yen.

While removing a part of the tax burden on residents by instituting a ¥1,000 departure tax is a good first step, but more is needed to ensure that tourism remains a sustainable source of income for this graying society and is appropriately used to reinforce needed tourism infrastructure.

The low yen makes Japan a bargain destination for many, and worries that overtourism will ruin not only local communities but also visitors’ experiences in Japan are well founded. In popular destinations temples and formerly picturesque alleyways are now filled with ever-present crowds, so the reality of the Japan people travel so far to see risks disappointing them.

The government cannot continue funding hundreds of mediocre websites, influencers, and semi-defunct Facebook pages forever, without a comprehensive plan to improve the infrastructure needed to deal with the huge influx of visitors. Expert assistance to help bring visitors to charming areas a bit off the beaten path would help distribute the economic benefits more equally, give both locals and visitors a bit more breathing room, and ensure that tourism is a sustainable font of revenue for decades to come.

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Is Japan’s tourism industry sustainable?

From a financial point of view of course it is, doesn't matter how much money the government pumps in to the industry they will get back their investment.

Is Japan’s tourism industry sustainable?

From the perspective of the local residents living in the overcrowded tourist spots no not at all and it will get even worse after the Olympic Games.

Expert assistance to help bring visitors to charming areas a bit off the beaten path would help distribute the economic benefits more equally, give both locals and visitors a bit more breathing room, and ensure that tourism is a sustainable font of revenue for decades to come.

Sounds good on paper but is not going to happen, almost everybody who comes to Japan for their first time just wants to visit the same overcrowded tourist spots like I myself did many years ago and who can blame them ?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I've been to the countryside in Japan, and there is not much out there to really be mind-blowing. A lot of the mountains are meh. And how long can your really hang out in an onsen? Handing tourists an English speaking menu is not the same as interacting with them: "Where are you from?", "Do you have a son who's single and rich?". Small talk goes a long way.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

With the cheap airlines, I suspect the tourists will keep coming but the big question is have the locals had enough?, Japan is already a crowded country with the tourists mainly going to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Mt Fuji and Nara. When I was last there a couple of years ago Gifu had none in fact the staff at the local Onsen had such surprise look on their faces seeing Western tourists walk in the door, Toba had a bus load of Chinese Tourists to witness the pearl diving but the rest of the town had nothing to offer.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Most people coming are Asian. This matters because many will be repeaters who do go to other parts of the country aside from Kyoto. I would be surprised if a higher % of them go to Tokyo than people from English speaking countries. The shorter the distance you are travelling, the more likely you are to go off the beaten track. Brits going to France are far more likely to not go to Paris than Americans.

The low yen makes Japan a bargain destination for many

With the yen at 133 to the pound, 75 to the AUD and 108ish to the USD, the yen is not "low" by any historical measure. Japan is not expensive compared to other countries, 1000 yen lunches, 500 yen for the onsen etc., but that is because of years of deflation. This deflation comes with the cost of low wages, arguably Japan's biggest problem.

I don't think aviation itself is sustainable, but so long as no-one does anything about it, I think tourism to Japan will continue to increase. It was a long time ago, but I've been to the "Kyoto of South Korea" and the "Kyoto of Taiwan" and let's just say they were not very impressive. The Taroko Gorge in Taiwan is stunning though. Highly recommended.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I love deflation and so should everyone else. It balances the reality of living and existing.

150 to the dollar would be more reasonable in my opinion.

There are so many things people miss when visiting here. Supermarkets for one.

I help visitors all the time. There is much more to Japan than the routine tourist spots.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Not sustainable. Just as many people are calling for tourism are also complaining at the results of it.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I guess the current boycott Japan movement in Korea is easing the burden of over tourism in Japan.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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