Japan Decides ‘Tourism Pollution’ Is Worth It as Money Floods In

Tourists at Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, Japan, earlier this year.
Tourists at Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, Japan, earlier this year.

Summary

  • After pandemic timeout, nation recommits to being top visitor destination

At a kimono-rental shop in Tokyo, Masaaki Ono has replaced the understated designs favored by his local clientele with floral kimonos in electric blues or pinks. Foreign visitors “love the wild patterns," he said.

A flood of tourists has returned, and it has been good for business. He and his wife recently moved to a new location double the size.

He just wishes more of his foreign customers would take their shoes off before tramping through the store.

Japan is bracing for a summer of “revenge tourism," as tourists who had been barred from visiting for nearly three years during the pandemic make up for lost time. The surge has brought with it a revival of complaints about “tourism pollution"—overcrowding, litter, loud talking and other nuisances.

“We want them to learn the rules a bit more before coming to have fun in Japan," said Ono.

Such grumbling was already widespread in 2019, prompting some to call for curbs on visitors. Yet Japan didn’t use its Covid-compelled timeout to make any significant changes. That suggests how lucrative the tourism industry has become—and how hard it is for a popular destination to turn its back on visitors once it has decided it wants a lot of them.

Akiko Yoshida, who formerly served as the Japan National Tourism Organization’s executive senior vice president, said the nation spent the 2010s preparing itself to be a global tourist hot spot—translating signs into English and Chinese, installing Wi-Fi networks for visitors and adding attractions.

It worked. In 2019, Japan welcomed nearly 32 million travelers, more than four times as many as a decade earlier. When the pandemic brought travel to a halt, Yoshida said, “the business world really suffered."

Now that the taps have reopened, the money is too good to pass up. Yoshida said she wouldn’t be surprised if tourists’ spending this year surpassed 2019’s record of 4.8 trillion yen, currently equivalent to almost $34 billion.

The Japan National Tourism Organization said Wednesday that in May almost 1.9 million travelers—68.5% of 2019’s numbers from the same month—entered Japan, helped by a weak yen that makes visitors’ dollars and euros go farther. The comeback is particularly sudden because Japan lifted Covid travel curbs only last October, later than many other countries.

“All my friends on their Instagrams, it’s ‘Japan, Japan, Japan,’ " said California teenager Fiori Lee, who was visiting Tokyo with her family. “Everyone’s just here."

Shun Natori, who sells sweet rice cakes in Tokyo’s Asakusa district near a temple popular with tourists, said they often throw trash on the ground, but he’s happy they are back.

“These past two years have been very hard," Natori said. “If customers don’t come, there’s no point in us doing business."

Duty-free sales in May at the high-end Isetan Shinjuku department store, owned by Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings, were nearly 27% higher than in May 2019, with visitors gravitating toward high-value items like jewelry, watches and handbags, according to the company.

While the cheap yen generally makes Japan a bargain for visitors, a few prices are going up sharply. Some luxury hotels in Tokyo are charging thousands of dollars a night for standard rooms, and the price of a regular seven-day Japan Rail Pass is going up 69% in October to the equivalent of just over $350.

One group is still conspicuously missing. Visitors from mainland China accounted for nearly a third of the total in 2019 but now make up only 7% as of May because Japan is still excluded from the Chinese government’s list of approved destinations for outbound group travel.

As an employee of a Japanese company, Li Min entered the country on a weeklong business trip from China. During her time off, she visited a seaside railway crossing in the city of Kamakura, south of Tokyo, made famous through the basketball-themed manga “Slam Dunk."

That and other attractions have made Kamakura Station so crowded that a city railway experimented with giving local residents a special pass to get into the station ahead of tourists so they could commute to work on time.

Industry leaders and government officials said they wanted to adapt to the rush, not block it.

In March 2022, the Kyoto city government released a pamphlet touting the contributions of foreign visitors to the economy. “When travelers return to Kyoto, it won’t bring back the same problems that we had before the pandemic," the pamphlet said.

Yet in recent weeks familiar complaints have cropped up again about tourists chasing geisha in the streets like paparazzi. City tourism official Kumiko Yoshioka said the city was running campaigns to inform tourists about the standards of behavior expected of them and recommending they visit attractions in off-peak hours—say, a dawn visit to a temple.

Alexander Bradshaw, chief consultant at travel industry advisory group Gotoku Consulting, said the pandemic was a missed opportunity to develop lesser-known areas of the country. “As the pandemic dragged on, people didn’t really know when it was going to finish," he said, and efforts to rethink “did kind of fizzle out."

The Japanese government’s tourism plan calls for redirecting tourists into regions far from Tokyo and Kyoto and focusing on “quality"—that is, high-spending—visitors.

“We need to be prepared for the new era, because we don’t want to repeat the problems of the past with overtourism," said Chief Executive Eijiro Yamakita of JTB, Japan’s largest travel agency.

Instead of curtailing tourists, Yamakita said, Japan should guide them to new regions, encourage them to be a bit quieter and “prepare the trash boxes."

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