What is "overtourism"?
The term is said to have been created by a website offering information on tourism 2 years ago. Since then, it has become an indispensable concept both in business and academic discussions on tourism.
Having too many visitors at a sightseeing spot can lead to a host of problems such as busy streets, traffic congestion and noise, causing inconveniences to local residents. It can even spoil the attraction of the site itself.
Japan aims to increase the number of inbound visitors by more than 10 million to 40 million by 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. As the number of tourists rises across the country, overtourism is expected to become an issue. Its effects are already being felt in Kyoto, one of the most popular Japanese cities for tourists.
Kyoto challenged by overtourism
Japan's ancient capital attracts more than 50 million visitors each year. We went to the city for this report during a 3-day holiday in the middle of September. On the main street near the Kiyomizu Temple, a world heritage site, was a long line of people waiting for a bus, which has become an everyday sight for locals.
A woman living in the vicinity said, "Buses are always packed. Sometimes, I can't get on and have to wait for the next one or the one after that. The traffic becomes particularly heavy in the fall, and buses get stuck in congestion." A man expressed his mixed views, saying, "The livelihoods of people in this area depend on tourism, so I'm not saying we don't need tourists, but we do see negative effects from it."
An increase in tourists is also causing noise pollution. A local woman said, "Since minpaku (private lodgings) has become popular, it's noisy even after midnight, as the houses are close to each other."
As we interviewed people around Kyoto Station, tourists pulling suitcases arrived in droves. Since I worked in Nara until 2008, I also used to visit Kyoto quite often, but I was astonished by how much the city had changed in 10 years, with all its foreign travelers.
Introduction of 3 dispersion measures
Kyoto is not just sitting idly by. At an international tourism expo held in Tokyo in September, Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa introduced the city's efforts to cope with overtourism.
The mayor has come up with tactics to disperse crowds in terms of time, area and season. In an interview with NHK, Kadokawa said, "The key is to disperse crowds in crowded times, crowded areas or crowded seasons. Now that sustainable development goals, or SDGs, have become a major theme for countries or cities around the world, the important thing is to combine SDGs and measures to develop Kyoto and promote its tourism."
Time dispersion: Promotion of morning sightseeing
At the Nijo Castle, one of Kyoto's major tourist attractions which has been designated as a world heritage site, time dispersion measures are being implemented. During the summer, the opening time was moved forward by one hour to 8 AM. In addition, a special breakfast set was offered at its garden teahouse, which is normally not open to the public.
The plan was a success. The place was fully booked every morning. A woman from Hyogo Prefecture said, "My image of Kyoto was a bustling city, but it is very calm here. I'm enjoying breakfast in a refreshing atmosphere." Also among the guests was a couple from the US who had entered right after the gate opened. The man said, "It's nice. It's not crowded. I'm pleased to come early in the morning."
Area dispersion: Efforts by the Fushimi district
Efforts to disperse visitors to wider areas have been underway in the Fushimi district in the city's south. Since Fushimi is not generally packed with people except for the area around the Fushimi Inari Shrine, the city has been trying to steer tourists to Fushimi from the crowded neighboring district.
As a result of brainstorming, local shopping arcades and travel agents have organized tours to sake breweries. Fushimi is famous for time-honored sake brands. The rare experience draws sake-loving foreigners.
On the day we covered the tour, 12 people from countries like Norway, Israel and the US took part. They visited sake breweries, enjoyed tasting and learned about pairing food and sake. The participants seemed to enjoy the tour, which offered an experience different from those of crowded tourist spots. The man from Israel said, "Visiting sake breweries was a great experience. It was interesting and different from what we had experienced in the city's central area." A British woman enjoyed the quiet atmosphere, saying, "Definitely less busy, less tourists. I want to come back."
Seasonal dispersion: Not only sakura and autumn leaves
The city is also trying seasonal dispersion methods. Although popular all year around, Kyoto becomes particularly crowded during cherry blossom season in the spring and the fall foliage season. To ease congestion during these seasons, the city has been trying to get tourists to visit in early summer to enjoy the fresh green maple leaves.
Kyoto is also planning to launch other measures. For instance, tourist facilities in Arashiyama, a popular spot for viewing autumn foliage, will start collecting data on the number of visitors on a trial basis. The data will be disclosed on a website real-time to ease congestion.
An expert says Kyoto's measures will be a case study for other cities around the world.
Overtourism around the world
Overtourism surfaced earlier in other countries. In Venice, Italy and Barcelona, Spain, the issue has reached the point where citizens are carrying out protests, demanding that the tourists leave.
Venice is a city known for attracting tourists in droves on large cruise ships. Once the visitors disembark, they descend en masse on a small area. When that happens, the city becomes as crowded as a popular theme park. The Italian government has decided that the huge cruise ships will be diverted from the city center. The city has launched measures such as building barriers at peak times to set up separate walking paths for tourists.
The Dutch city of Amsterdam has banned beer bikes in parts of the city center, which are multi-passenger bicycles which people ride while drinking beer. The ban was imposed because citizens complained that the city had become too much of a tourist attraction. Local media reports say some residents have moved away, complaining that the city has lost its traditional charm.
Overtourism is also affecting the environment. The Philippine government took the unusual move in April of closing the popular resort island of Boracay to tourists. The government said the increase in visitors had led to water pollution. Sewage systems have since been upgraded and the island will be partly reopened to tourists in late October.
The UN sounds an alarm
The Secretary-General of the UN World Tourism Organization, Zurab Pololikashvili, spoke to NHK about why overtourism has become a problem around the world.
He said one factor is the growing number of tourists. There were more than 1.3 billion tourists around the world last year. Their number is growing at a rate of 3 to 4 percent per year. More people from the middle class are travelling abroad as economies grow in developing countries.
He also listed factors like the emergence of low cost carriers and improved flight connections between continents.
In view of the growing problem, the United Nations designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. The world body has held conferences in multiple countries and is working to solve the issue.
The UN World Tourism Organization and other organizations released a set of 11 policy recommendations in September to deal with the situation.
They include promoting the dispersal of visitors over times and locations by, for example, creating attractive events for tourists during low season. They also include ensuring that local communities benefit from tourism by increasing tourism-related employment and other advantages. Another measure involves improving infrastructure by taking steps such as making sure secondary routes are available at peak times.
In June, Japan's Tourism Agency launched a task force to promote sustainable tourism. The team will study examples both at home and abroad.
I have come to realize that while municipalities may be happy with the arrival of more visitors, they must deal with issues like overcrowding and congestion. As a person who loves to travel, I have also realized that there are many ways visitors can help, such as showing more respect for the local people and culture, doing what we can to protect the environment and cultural properties, and trying harder to find destinations that are off the beaten path.