The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated local economies in Japan, pushing a number of businesses in rural areas to the brink of insolvency, if not outright bankruptcy.
Hot-spring towns and ski resorts such as Nozawa Onsen in Nagano Prefecture, which are reliant on inbound tourism, have been hit hardest, and there simply aren’t enough local customers to sustain operating facilities deep in the mountains.
The immediate problem these local economies face is the polar opposite of overtourism, and, for as long as the pandemic lingers, there’s never been a better time for rural destinations to consider developing more sustainable forms of tourism.
For consumers, sustainable travel tends to evoke notions of lowering their environmental impact, whether that be by minimizing one’s carbon footprint, avoiding single-use plastics or staying at eco-friendly lodgings.
Sustainability itself is a complex issue, and yet, as far as tourism is concerned, a unifying factor appears to lie at the heart of any initiative’s success: the local community.
One might argue that such communities lie at the cornerstone of tourism: For why do people visit places if not to experience local flavor, and who suffers the adverse consequences of tourism but those who live there?
Indeed, people close to the tourism industry often speak of the need to balance commercial interests with the needs of the local residents in those communities.
It’s hard to overemphasize the economic impact tourism has on local communities. The money tourists spend during their stay tends to have a positive effect in the wider economy; remove this revenue from the equation and the entire supply chain is disrupted.
Derek Yamashita, co-founder of travel website The Hidden Japan, says seafood prices in Yamagata Prefecture’s Shonai region dropped significantly once local hotels, ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and restaurants reduced their orders after bookings dried up, leaving fishermen in the region with excess, unsold catches.
Without an influx of cash coming into these communities from the outside, it’s tough for local businesses to survive.
Walk Japan is a company that prides itself on its efforts to incorporate local communities into its walking tours. It is also committed to employing local staff, an approach reflected in its ongoing community project in two neighboring valleys on the Kunisaki Peninsula in Oita Prefecture.
“We use local family-run accommodations, local taxi and bus firms, restaurants, and the like,” Walk Japan CEO Paul Christie says. “The money we spend in the area tends to stay in the area. … We usually come to know local people in the business, and, if there’s an issue, we can talk to them. It’s about getting under the skin of Japan in an efficient fashion.”
Walk Japan places restrictions on the number of participants that can join a tour group, which generally results in low-impact travel. It is perhaps worth noting, though, that the company tries to attract more affluent clients, which typically means fewer customers to begin with.
Yamagata-based The Hidden Japan and Hokkaido-based Adventure Hokkaido also seek to incorporate the same community ethos into their operations. Yamashita and Kazuhiro Arai, director of Adventure Hokkaido, are committed to employing local guides and experts, with Arai noting that his guides have all been born and bred in Hokkaido.
“We don’t use translators from Tokyo or people outside the community,” Yamashita says. “We’re not going to employ some random guy. It’s going to be a local guide who has passion for a topic.”
It isn’t uncommon for large group tours in rural Japan to be led by non-local guides, underscoring Yamashita’s commitment to delivering an “authentic” experience by working only with people living in Yamagata Prefecture.
Before the pandemic, most first-time travelers to Japan would likely have planned their trip along the country’s so-called Golden Route, planning their itinerary based on stays in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.
According to the most recent statistics published by the Japan National Tourism Organization, the regional distribution of inbound travelers has clearly been skewed, with just under half visiting Tokyo, followed by Osaka, Chiba and Kyoto, respectively.
Many businesses in these cities were already handling an increasing number of tourists even before the coronavirus emerged in China at the end of last year.
Now, however, densely populated urban areas have never looked less appealing than they do at present. Tokyo and Osaka evoke a particular horror for residents in rural parts of the country due to comparatively high COVID-19 infection rates in both cities.
Conversely, tourism to rural areas has seen a worldwide surge in interest over the course of 2020, and the interest in outdoor activities such as camping and hiking has never been higher.
The appeal is obvious: It’s easier to maintain social distancing in rural areas, with the added bonus of being in or closer to beautiful, natural surroundings. Even without the specter of travel restrictions, rural destinations were already experiencing higher visitor volumes across the board, and nature-based tourism in rural areas is slated to be a key part of the country’s official inbound tourism strategy going forward.
The pandemic has accelerated these trends. Prior to 2020, the government had already poured trillions of yen into promoting lesser-visited parts of Japan as tourist destinations.
Although sustainability rarely factored into official tourism strategy within Japan, the effects of the climate crisis and overtourism appear to have finally made some impact.
Government white papers in recent years have highlighted the importance of redirecting tourist traffic away from larger cities mitigate the effects of overtourism, as well as to spread the economic benefits of tourism more equally.
The Japan Tourism Agency launched a Sustainable Tourism Promotion office in 2018, joined the Global Sustainable Tourism Council in late 2019 and recently issued Japan-specific GSTC criteria by which industry operators can seek certification as being “sustainable” to an international standard.
Some see domestic tourism as a stopgap solution to the current situation.
Yamashita has written about the fragility of the hotel and ryokan industry in Yamagata, arguing that “an immediate influx of tourists (is needed) to support them and get them back on their feet.”
Some companies, including Walk Japan and Adventure Hokkaido, are offering tours in the countryside, and people are still traveling to and from rural areas. That said, the existing volume is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the numbers that had previously passed through year after year.
COVID-19 is the obvious hurdle. The recent Go To Travel promotional tourism campaign has incited an equal mix of wrath and fear from many residents of rural areas.
Anna Shimeki, a Gunma resident who runs a small family business specializing in construction and renovation, highlights the frustration her community has for Tokyo residents at present.
“The main thinking is that it’s irresponsible and selfish for (Tokyo people) to be traveling,” Shimeki says. “Local businesses know they need them to survive, but normal people on the street don’t want anything to do with them.”
The resentment is perhaps understandable.
One of the main concerns regarding travel during a pandemic is that hospitals in rural areas have little capacity to accommodate even a slight increase in cases.
Laura Kurotobi, a university lecturer and education researcher based in Mihara, Hiroshima Prefecture, says that “if we got hit with many serious cases, we would struggle to handle it all.”
Without clear and reliable government directives, many in the travel and hospitality sectors are turning to their respective communities when making business decisions. Obtaining local approval has become paramount.
Tetsuo Nakahara, who resides in the tiny hamlet of Sakuraden on the Kunisaki Peninsula, Oita Prefecture, consulted everyone in the neighborhood prior to opening a new guesthouse earlier this year, and again when it came to the question of accepting guests from Tokyo.
“My daughter is the first baby in this community in 15 years,” Nakahara says. “She’s like a princess here. I love this area. I don’t want to make trouble for neighbors and the community.”
As with other business owners nationwide, he is monitoring the situation, stocking up on hand sanitiser and welcoming guests on a case-by-case basis.
Without the usual tourist volumes, it’s a good time for rural destinations to consider more sustainable practices going forward, but also to explore alternative opportunities and solutions. Outside of tourism, Christie sees the current moment as a tremendous opportunity to attract remote workers to the countryside.
“The idea of working away from an office has become less an idea and more of a practical thing,” Christie says. “The pandemic has actually boosted the attractiveness of the countryside.”
Indeed, an increase in remote work is likely to bring an infusion of much-needed cash from those fleeing cities and some ryokan are already advertising rooms as ideal satellite offices.
Takashi Yamada, director of sales and marketing for the Kiso Ontake Tourism Office in Nagano Prefecture, suggests that areas like the Kiso Valley could look into converting existing akiya (empty houses) into remote work-friendly spaces — with, of course, consensus from local stakeholders.
The way forward for rural destinations is not to eliminate tourism altogether. Healthy, sustainable tourism must be based on deep respect for people and the land they live on in order for a place to avoid being destroyed by tourism. Such a concept is only possible if we adopt a “locals first” mind-set in rebuilding tourism.
Harriet Richardson, who works at nonprofit destination management organization Hill Town Biei, understands the outsider-local tensions all too well.
Although Biei, a picturesque town in Hokkaido, has a population of just 10,000 residents or so, it used to attract 10 times more visitors each year, resulting in frustration and hostility from locals. Nevertheless, the pandemic has also shown many businesses in Biei that they will not survive on local patronage alone, so some are slowly reconciling to the benefits of tourism.
“Because of coronavirus we’ve learned a lot about why it’s quite good to manage the numbers of visitors,” Richardson says, describing the town’s ongoing efforts to educate both tourists and locals about each other. “But it’s very important to our town’s economy that we have tourists coming in. The challenge for our region is, how do we balance the numbers? Our primary goal is finding a way to reconcile locals with tourists.”
In the case of Hokkaido, respecting indigenous Ainu values is likely to be another key to sustainable tourism. For Arai of Adventure Hokkaido, who also heads the Hokkaido Adventure Travel Association, sustainable tourism is about managing the environment, culture and socioeconomics of a given area, which means working together with the original stewards of the land.
“As a Hokkaido person,” he says, “we need to recognize our Ainu culture.”
Going forward, businesses that can demonstrate a tangible commitment to their communities will be more likely to survive the pandemic and meet with long-term success.
“Something that seems to be increasingly important (to customers) is a sense of how worthy a company is,” Christie says. “Walk Japan has its Community Project. We work very hard at that, and that hasn’t come to a stop at all.”
The downturn in tourist numbers this year has allowed those involved in the industry to reevaluate their priorities. At some point, tourists will return and it is important to recalibrate the industry so that the needs of local communities are prioritized.
“This is a good opportunity to get back to the basics of tourism,” Nakahara says. “Locals must be happy, especially the elderly. It has to be something locals can be proud of. If we can achieve that, it’s something sustainable for me.”
Jim Hepple is an Assistant Professor at the University of Aruba and is Managing Director of Tourism Analytics.