OGASAWARA ISLANDS--With its listing as a World Natural Heritage site, the Ogasawara island chain has faced an inevitable surge in tourists--and among them visitors lacking basic common sense.
The number of tourists to the islands, about 1,000 kilometers south of central Tokyo, jumped 50 percent from July to September this year compared with the same period last year. The islands were registered as a World Natural Heritage site in late June.
Although various restrictions are imposed to protect the nature and environment of the islands, rule-breakers and other inconsiderate travelers continue to arrive, negating the elation of islanders over the tourist money flowing into the area.
Ogasawara Kaiun Co. operates a passenger ferry between Takeshiba pier in central Tokyo and the Ogasawara islands once a week. A one-way trip takes 25 hours and 30 minutes.
Company officials say passengers repeatedly ask such inane questions as: "Why don't airplanes fly to the Ogasawara islands?" "How many times do ships leave for the islands per day?" and "Is there a (high-class) Prince Hotel there?"
Some tourists whine that the ship's second-class rooms where people sleep together provide no privacy.
"Our company is facing difficulties in dealing with a new type of customers. We are now considering new measures to improve the situation," said an employee in charge of sales promotion.
According to the Ogasawara village office, about 8,300 people visited the islands on the regular service of the ferry from July to September, a 30-percent increase from the same period last year. Including those who arrived on two cruise ships in August, the total number of visitors was about 9,400, 50 percent larger than last year.
The number of tourists on Ogasawara Kaiun's ferry who were older than 60 doubled in September from the same month last year.
On Chichijima island, one of the main islands of Ogasawara, many tourists, wearing name tags of travel companies, can be seen in the main street where supermarkets and souvenir shops are located.
A married couple in their 70s from Kobe said they applied for a package tour after watching a television program that introduced Ogasawara.
"Because we are old, we thought we could not go to Ogasawara unless we apply now. We waited for cancellations by other applicants and were finally able to take part in this tour," one of them said.
Souvenir shop operator Toshihiko Kikuchi, 64, said the number of rich tourists has risen.
"They buy such products as local salt. My shop's sales have increased by 20 percent," Kikuchi said.
Ogasawara is promoting eco-tourism. People are prohibited from bringing animals or plants to the islands, and they are required to stay on the designated walkways.
Particularly strict rules are imposed on visitors to the small island of Minamijima, the most popular spot in the Ogasawara chain. Tourists take small boats from Chichijima, but only 100 are allowed to visit Minamijima per day, and they can only stay for two hours.
They must be accompanied by guides, and they have to wash off the mud and soil from their shoes in advance.
Previously, most of the visitors to Minamijima knew about those rules before coming to Ogasawara. But after the islands were registered as a World Natural Heritage site, many new tourists were found to be quite ignorant of the regulations. Some of them have even called for taxis in Chichijima asking for drivers to take them to Minamijima.
Hidenori Tsutsui, 61, who operates an inn in Ogasawara, is critical of the new-type visitors.
"People who think that World Heritage sites are sightseeing spots have started to come to Ogasawara. Some go out but leave the air conditioners on in their rooms. Others pay no regard to the amount of water they use for their baths even though the islands are facing water shortages," he said.
Takashi Kaneko, 43, director of the guide division at the Ogasawara Village Tourist Association, received the following message from a person who had repeatedly visited the islands over the past 10 years: "I will refrain from visiting the islands until the tourism boom there calms down."
Kaneko says: "There are some media reports that islanders are full of joy about the registration (as a World Natural Heritage site). But if we are too jubilant, we will lose the important things."
The village office and the Tokyo metropolitan government, which has jurisdiction over the islands, plan to maintain regulations to protect nature despite the growing number of tourists.
Japan has three other areas that have been designated as World Natural Heritage sites: Yakushima island in Kagoshima Prefecture (designated in 1993); the Shirakami Sanchi mountains spanning Aomori and Akita prefectures (also in 1993); and the Shiretoko region in eastern Hokkaido (in 2005).
All three sites have had problems protecting nature while receiving more tourists.
In fiscal 1993, about 200,000 people visited Yakushima. But in fiscal 2007, the figure was 400,000. And the number of tourists who climb the mountain to see the centuries-old "jomonsugi" cedars has tripled to about 90,000 in 10 years.
Messes have been created because there are not enough toilets to accommodate the rising tourist numbers. And some people have strayed off the mountain-climbing routes and trampled the delicate mosses.
This year, the Yakushima town office submitted to the town assembly an ordinance to limit the number of people who enter the mountain. But the assembly rejected the ordinance, fearing an adverse effect on the tourism industry.
In Shirakami Sanchi, the number of visitors to the neighboring Akaishi mountain streams and the Anmon-no-Taki waterfalls on the Aomori Prefecture side increased from 212,000 in 1993 to 540,000 in 2009. Garbage and charred holes where bonfires were burned have been found in the no-entry zones.
Shiretoko, which spans the towns of Shari and Rausu, was a popular sightseeing spot even before the designation as a World Natural Heritage site.
About 2.45 million people visited the two towns in the registration year of 2005, up 160,000 from the previous year. But the number declined to 2.38 million in 2006 and further to 2.13 million in 2007.
Despite the decrease, limits were imposed this year on the number of people who can enter the walking paths around five lakes there from early summer to autumn.
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