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New Protections from Overtourism For Okinawa's World Heritage Iriomote Island

The return of tourists to Japan and Asia is prompting local decisions for protecting the fragile environment of native plants and wildlife from overtourism.



Hibiscus, a native flower of Okinawa. (Photo by Agnes Tandler)

Iriomote Island, Okinawa Prefecture, is introducing a daily entry cap of under 1,200 tourists. The measure was taken to avoid the impact of overtourism on local plant and animal wildlife, including the endangered Iriomote cat

Okinawa Prefecture announced on March 28 that the yearly entry has also been capped to under 330,000 people. It is one of the measures they are taking to preserve UNESCO world heritage site

In addition, in five locations close to the UNESCO-inscribed area that see concentrated access, the daily entry of travelers has been capped to stay under 30 to 200 people, depending on the site. Tourists will also be able to access the location accompanied by a guide. In addition, the local government intends to share information for responsible tourism.

This announcement marks the first time the prefectural government has set a concrete cap for the number of tourists allowed. It is likely not a coincidence that the move comes at a time of rapidly increasing numbers of tourists visiting the island. The abrupt change has had local authorities scrambling to lessen the burden on the wildlife and the small island community. 

A Very Special Island

Iriomote is an island with fewer than 2,500 residents. Yet, it received up to 300,000 visitors in a regular year before the pandemic. Sometimes, peak tourism hovered around 400,000 annually, according to a study by a Kyushu local government. The number of daily visitors sometimes reached 2,400 people, which is double the new limit.  

Therefore, the new limits are seen as a way to avoid letting the number rise even further. Prefectural and local justification for the move cites risks such as collisions with the local wildlife, damaging of the vegetation, and congestion from the number of tourists. 

The new measures are set to take place from April 2023. At the same time, the local government has not yet explained how it will enforce the new rules. For that reason, it remains to be seen whether the measures will be effective. 

"I think it is good that the number of visitors for one year was determined to be 330,000 to some extent. Or perhaps it was good because in the past it was unclear," said Yusuke Takayama, who works in animal conservation, speaking to the national TV network Fuji Television

On the other hand, he added, "I think the problem is that there is no concrete plan for how to achieve this number." 

Foreign tourists visit Kyoto in December 2022 (© Sankei by Rintaro Kishita)

The Return of Overtourism 

Japan reopened its borders to tourists in October 2022. In the ensuing months the number of foreign travelers has been growing. While the data are not yet in, the spring 2023 cherry blossom season was the first in four years to be celebrated with outside tourists,

In fact, since the apparent end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of foreign tourists is returning to normal. Travelers from abroad in January 2023 had already returned to 58% of their pre-pandemic levels, according to the Japan Tourism Agency

Yet, with the return of tourism, comes fear of overtourism. Kyoto offers a case in point. In 2018, prior to the pandemic, Kyoto had already enacted measures to manage the crowds.

Other localities in Asia have also struggled with overtourism. In 2018, Thailand closed Maya Bay in the Andaman Sea's Phi Phi Islands. This was in response to severe problems of mass tourism, which resulted in an estimated 80% damage to the local coral reefs, as reported by Nikkei Asia

Overtourism is not limited to Japanese or Asian cities, either. 

The Italian city of Venice has pledged to introduce a tourism tax between €3 and  €10 EUR for day-travelers. It is an effort to capture the economic impact of those who come to the city but don't stay in hotels. In addition, the local government has also promised to introduce a booking system whereby all entrants are required to pre-register. However, details are still murky. 

Suffice it to say, as air travel returns to Asia, it's expected that the discussion on overtourism will increase in the coming months. 


Author: Arielle Busetto