FUKUOKA — Kumamoto Prefecture’s mountainous Aso region is a place where you could get drunk on nature’s immensity. Swing your car onto Aso’s Panorama Line road, step on the accelerator and you’ll fly past grassy plains stretching upward to the green-tipped crags of Mount Aso and its five peaks. Here, sigh city visitors, is a vast sky and a sweeping horizon one simply doesn’t expect to see in Japan.

It’s no surprise that Aso now attracts more tourists than any other area in Kyushu apart from Fukuoka City. It has much to offer, namely Kyushu’s largest national park, the active volcano Mount Aso, gurgling hot springs, verdant forests and mainland Kyushu’s tallest peaks (up to 1,791 meters high). In addition, the area is a mere two hours from Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Oita cities by expressway, making it an easy stop on the itineraries of most Kyushu visitors.

And therein lies the rub. The area’s natural beauty has brought increasing traffic and cheerful tourist buildings now dot previously uninterrupted expanses of green. Each new development brings with it the potential for environmental harm.

“A while ago, Aso’s inadequate roads and facilities were part of its appeal,” says Yuka Terada, a JTB tour guide who has taken visitors to Aso for about five years. “You could discover something for yourself. But now, there are almost too many facilities.”

Tolls on the Panorama Line road were abolished this year in response to complaints from local businesses that the 1,240 yen per vehicle fee was keeping visitor numbers down, and this has encouraged the influx of tourists. Considering how many roadside toilet blocks and BBQ restaurants have been built recently in other areas, one wonders how long it will take for them to appear here in Aso’s core. Also, plans are afoot to widen other roads to Aso, which will make access easier for day-trippers and bring nontourist traffic through Kyushu’s central mountains.

Despite the potential drawbacks, there have been some positive changes to tourism in Aso, such as the post bubble-economy shift from group to individual tourism.

“Most visitors to Aso now consist of families, energetic seniors and young couples who want to experience nature — not just tour the famous sights in buses,” says Toshitaka Honda of Kumamoto Prefecture’s Tourism and Local Products Division.

This trend has led to less demand for large resorts and golf courses, and increased development of smaller-scale inns, farms and hot springs that generally consume fewer resources and involve less landscaping. A growing number of travel guides on Aso, which are often aimed at women, focus on small hot spring and gourmet establishments, further highlighting the change from mass- to micro-tourism in Aso.

Even the development of golf resorts in Aso has slowed. After environmentalists linked soil erosion and depletion of Aso’s rich water reserves to the resorts’ use of artificial fertilizers and the transformation of the landscape, regulations were implemented to limit this activity. A law established in 1989 restricts the total golf course area to less than 1 percent of Kumamoto Prefecture’s land area.

Subsequent cooling of the economy after the mid-’90s has no doubt helped this law stick. The Aso branch of the Environment Agency has reported no new applications for golf course development in the last two years, a phenomenon attributed to the current economic climate.

The golf uproar has quietened, but other environmental issues remain. For example, inadequate sewerage facilities in a few towns in Aso have caused fish to disappear from some rivers due to pollution, and boring for irrigation in the ’60s has caused springs to dry up in other areas.

Authorities are often reluctant to discuss these issues as they fear damage to the area’s pristine image. “Visitors and guides often aren’t told about environmental problems because locals are worried that this will affect business,” says Terada.

Yet increased public awareness of environmental issues supposedly lies behind one of this year’s biggest trends: “tourist farms,” or organic and dairy farms with facilities such as shops, restaurants and petting areas. Staff at Aso Farmland, which sees about 3 million visitors annually, say that visitors go there to learn more about nature. Similarly, organic produce from towns such as Ichinomiya is gaining brandlike status with restaurateurs and buyers.

Fostering nature appreciation is a positive step, although a lack of concrete agendas suggests there may be a long way to go before real action is taken to preserve Aso’s resources. Although Aso saw a record 14.1 million visitors in 1999, more tourists from Taiwan and Hong Kong chose to visit the less-spoiled scenery of Hokkaido. Foreign tourists account for a tiny proportion of total visitor numbers; however, the shift suggests the crucial importance of finding a balance between tourism and the environment.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.