TOKYO: With the population shrinking and the government leery of allowing more immigrants into the country, foreign tourism has become an effective economic stimulus. In fact, its success has exceeded anyone’s wildest dreams. More than 28 million tourists from abroad visited Japan last year, and it seems for sure that the stated goal of reaching 40 million tourists a year by 2020 will be achieved if not surpassed, with or without legalized casino gambling, which is part of the official tourism plan.
That said, a downside has emerged — something the media is calling “kankō kōgai,” or “tourism pollution.” However effective the tourism promotion scheme has been, it didn’t take into account the numbers that actually materialized, nor the fact that many places, even those ostensibly set up for tourism, are not capable of handling the amount of traffic they’ve seen.
Masaru Takayama, a native of Kyoto and the CEO of an eco-tourism company, said his hometown is practically overrun by overseas tourists these days, and the residents don’t like it, despite the boost to the local economy. People who live along transportation routes that go through sightseeing areas find it difficult to use local buses anymore because they’re crammed with tourists. Restaurants are always booked because of social network hype. And foreign visitors, he states plainly, are often inconsiderate — eating on the street, making too much noise in general. The rush of out-of-towners has destroyed “miyabi” — that refined atmosphere unique to Kyoto.
What’s needed is better transportation access, accommodations that can handle foreign visitors as well as more complete infrastructure.
The government has implemented an exit tax of ¥1,000 for people leaving Japan from 2019 that will be used to reinforce tourism infrastructure, and one vital change in that regard would be helping businesses become less reliant on cash transactions. Many tourist-oriented businesses still don’t take credit cards or e-money, because Japanese customers pay in cash. Many tourists from abroad prefer not to.
Another problem is that most tourist-oriented businesses in Japan are small-scale, and so can’t afford to renovate their operations to accommodate overseas visitors. The government may have to subsidize these renovations; otherwise the tourist boom could go bust. Solving these problems requires a will to action on the part of the government and the sightseeing industry. The trickier part is getting the public to accept overseas tourists.