Interacting with locals called key role in eco-tourism


Eco-tourism can play a significant role in energizing communities, according to panelists at a recent symposium held in Tokyo by the National Ecotourism Center, which was created in August.

Toshimichi Hirose, a representative of the group, which is applying for nonprofit organization status to spread eco-tourism, said community-level interaction can become a key component.

Hirose said it has been about 20 years since he and his colleagues first began studying eco-tourism, but it is only recently that they’ve started to consider a Japan-specific application.

Up until the mid-90s, Hirose said the country’s eco-tourism researchers focused on promoting travel to noted national parks overseas to experience nature and environmental awareness.

But surveys conducted in 1994 by the then Environment Agency on Okinawa’s Iriomote Island and in 2004 on Yakushima Island, Kagoshima Prefecture, found that pollees, in addition to taking in famous sights and experiencing nature, found their interaction with locals to be an enjoyable experience, adding impetus to the new concept of eco-tourism Japan-style.

“When thinking of eco-tourism in Japan, I think it needs that aspect . . . trips to meet people and bond with them,” Hirose said.

Hirose recalled that when he was helping to draft an eco-tourism-promotion bill, which was passed by the Diet last June, there were arguments over whether the definition of eco-tourism should include experiencing local lifestyles as well as the natural environment. In the end, this element was included.

Under the law, which takes effect April 1, communities will draw up basic plans for eco-tourism projects to be certified by the government. The government will then help municipalities promote eco-tourism and environmental protection. The Environment Ministry said the law aims for a comprehensive framework to ensure eco-tours do not in fact damage the environments they take in, as sometimes is the case now.

At the symposium, panelists also discussed possible challenges, including ways for visitors and promoters to communicate with locals and ways to get urban children involved in interacting with nature.

Takako Takano, a visiting professor at Waseda University in Tokyo who lives in Minami Uonuma, Niigata Prefecture, and represents the NPO Ecoplus, said the current trend in which children are not familiar with nature activities can be seen not only in urban areas but also in rural areas.

For instance, she said that when she planned to host a camp in Minami Uonuma, it failed to attract many kids.

“It’s not that they already knew how to make a fire, climb trees or search for vegetables in the mountains. They were just not interested,” she said.

She also said children born in families of farmers do not experience farming these days because the process has been mechanized.

“Now children learn rice-planting at their schools. That didn’t exist when I was a child,” she said.

Takashi Fukui, a visiting professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology who moderated the symposium, asked the panelists for ideas on how people involved in eco-tourism could enhance the values of rural areas. This is necessary because rural people might have lost sight of the value of their areas and lost pride amid the widening rural-urban economic disparities.

Tsuyoshi Sekihara, who represents Kamiechigo Yamazato Fan Club, an NPO, pointed out that rural values suffered during Japan’s rapid postwar economic growth.

“Industrialization harmed traditional values in villages during the past three or four decades,” Sekihara said.

Hirose said he feels urbanites may have become overwhelmed by globalization and may be yearning for the more simple values that seem to be part of the rural fabric.

“In my (Shizuoka Prefecture) hometown of Shibakawa, which has just 10,000 people, young people from the area who once left have come back and started a school,” he said. “I think it’s a really interesting development.”

Elderly people are also finding new motivation by getting involved in introducing rural lifestyles to eco-tourists, Hirose said.

Hisashi Sonehara of Egao Tsunagete, another NPO, said movements like eco-tourism to energize communities will probably expand in the coming years.

“Interaction between people in urban and rural areas through eco-tourism . . . I think it will be an effective way (to energize communities),” he said. “From there, I think something new will happen.”