I was speaking with a woman the other day who had recently been to Japan. She acknowledged that Japan is the “in” place to travel to and, as if to qualify this fact, complained that “Kyoto was so crowded, I couldn’t even get a photo of the Golden Pavilion because of all the Chinese tourists.”
It’s convenient to blame Japan’s overtourism (and bad tourist behavior) on the Chinese, but consider this: Parameters for tourists have been in place all over the world since well before the Chinese ever started traveling abroad. Such constraints still exist as some countries have realized the only way to control their guests’ behavior is by setting clear rules. Nowadays, travelers are so used to abiding by such precedents that we hardly notice them anymore.
So why has punctilious Japan been slow to implement countermeasures to mitigate the effects of overtourism here? When compared to places I’ve been recently, this country seems bereft of rules that elsewhere are considered travel industry standards. For example, why does Japan continue to allow group tour participants to run holus-bolus around temple grounds and sacred places? Such liberties are unheard of in, say, the cathedrals of Europe. In most other countries, you’d also likely be arrested if you defaced or damaged property.
Indeed, this aggrieved and ill-prepared nation is not only blaming tourists, it is encouraging acrimony and feeding xenophobic sentiment by threatening to ban non-Japanese group travelers from specified venues — a harsh response from a nation that, in the 1980s, was renowned for its own ill-mannered tour groups abroad.
Don’t get me wrong, I am sympathetic to the problems Japan is grappling with and have myself attempted to help educate inbound travelers on Japanese etiquette, but the truth is that Japan should be taking much more initiative. Rather than embracing possible solutions with alacrity, people here seem to prefer temporizing any action with plaintive blame.
It is astonishing to me that Japan hasn’t devised a system to deal with the burgeoning number of visitors that the country itself has courted — and continues to court — via travel campaigns and relaxed visa regulations. And, of course, Japan is not the first country to encounter such problems. All we really need to do is look to other travel-friendly nations for model answers.
Here are some ideas on how to enhance the sightseeing experience for everyone involved, based on my own role as a tourist in an increasingly over-traveled world:
Hohenzollern Castle is a fairy tale-like fortification perched on a hill and features towers and pinnacles fit for Rapunzel. It welcomes more than 350,000 visitors every year, and tours are given in English every day at 2 p.m. — and they are limited to 50 people, first come first served. If you don’t arrive early to secure your place in line, you won’t get in that day.
Before the English-speaking guide shepherded us through the castle, he briefed us on expected behavior: No touching the artifacts and no taking photos. When one of the participants aimed his smartphone at the vaulted ceiling in one of the rooms, the guide politely and verbally reminded him that photos were not allowed. Other tourists were gently chided, at least once, to be quiet so others could hear the guide’s explanations.
Holland and Hungary
I had to make an appointment a day in advance to gain entry to the Miffy Museum in Utrecht, and then choose from available time slots. Want to visit the Lego factory in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary? Join the months-long waiting list. This kind of scheduling system allows factory workers time to get their necessary tasks done rather than spending most of their time catering to tour groups.
Visitors need to make reservations for the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, and can only enter the buildings of the former Kyoto Imperial Palace by making prior arrangements through palace authorities. So, perhaps other sites in Japan that suffer from overcrowding should adopt this system? Even requiring a one-day prior booking at certain overcrowded temples would help limit crowds.
When I went to Oslob to investigate the controversial practice of swimming with whale sharks, I and the mostly Filipino participants had to sit through a 15-minute information session before the excursion.
A guide educated these nascent snorkelers about whale sharks, their habitat and marine etiquette: What we could and couldn’t do while in the domain of the leviathans, which included exactly how far we should stay away from them (4 meters). We were also told not to wear sunscreen (and to take off any that had already been applied) as it pollutes the water and the chemicals harm the sharks. We were not to use flash photography, feed the marine animals, nor throw trash into the water.
Failure to follow the rules could prompt punitive measures, including a fine of up to $2,500 (or up to six months’ imprisonment) for touching a whale shark. We also had to sign a form saying we had agreed to and understood the rules.
On this tropical Indonesian island that welcomed around 5.7 million foreign guests in 2017 (greater than the island’s 2014 population of 4.2 million), the staff at major Hindu temples provide sarongs and belts for both male and female tourists donning shorts or revealing clothing. If there is a special ceremony that day, they may be required to wear these sarongs around their waists even when covered up otherwise. Some temples allow the use of the wraps for free while others charge a nominal fee for it. If you are not dressed appropriately, sorry, but you may not enter.
During the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, official souvenir stores limited the amount of fans allowed inside the shop at one time. A queuing system was enforced at the door, in which customers were only permitted inside after other customers exited. This made the shopping experience much more pleasurable.
The need for boundaries
Countermeasures like the ones listed above that establish boundaries, control access, and aim to inform and educate are necessary for Japan to create a harmonious tourism industry. Implementing such basic measures is the very least the country can do with its newfound tourism profits.
Since there are already dedicated entrances to most temples in Japan (where they also collect entrance fees), the people who run things could easily control the number of people entering and exiting. Shrines or sites without entrance fees can cordon off an area to enter and exit. It should be mandatory for groups and guides to sit through introductory briefings to inform visitors of expected criterion and behavior. Group sizes may need to be reduced, and the number of guides per group increased.
While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly expressed the need to spread out visitors more evenly over the archipelago and encourage people to discover more off-the-beaten-track destinations, the challenge is to actually get them to act. Limiting access to already overpopulated sites and instilling black-out dates for tour operators at especially busy times would force them to find alternatives.
Japan has been far too oblique up until now. A deep-seated aversion to confrontation has allowed the more assertive tourists to walk all over their more gentle hosts. Now is the time for Japan to be more decisive and lay down some ground rules. Once these rules are established, they need to be enforced. Parameters for tourists will only be as effective as the country’s willingness to enforce them.
Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press).