SHARI, Hokkaido – People have been flocking to the Shiretoko Peninsula in northeastern Hokkaido after it was approved for inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage List last July, but the influx is creating problems for local residents and business owners.
The number of visitors to the Utoro Hot Spring area near the town of Shari, the center of tourism on the peninsula, has quadrupled, a hotel manager said.
One day in late June, the walking trail around the Shiretokogo lakes, in which the snow-capped Shiretoko mountain chain is reflected, was overcrowded with tourists.
Some places were so packed that people had to come to a complete stop and wait for the foot traffic to clear.
The lakes are Shiretoko’s signature sightseeing spot. About 500,000 people visit them every year. Visitors can circle the lakes in an hour and a half on the walking trail, provided the way is clear.
But nowadays, drivers are forced to wait two hours just to park near the lakes. To ease the congestion, local people are offering shuttle buses from Utoro to the lakes and larger buses from hotels to the shuttle bus stop.
Shiretoko is a treasure trove of animals and rich vegetation, but the construction of new parking lots and hotels would cause a great deal of damage.
Meanwhile, the town of Rausu, also on the peninsula, depends on fishing for its economy as there are no large facilities to accommodate visitors to its sightseeing spots.
“Even since (Shiretoko) has been registered as a (U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) natural heritage site, we have been unable to make a strong effort for tourism,” said Rausu Mayor Kimio Waki.
Some tourists are parking their cars outside designated areas, and litter has been growing, sparking anger among residents.
In late June, the beach near Cape Shiretoko on the northern tip of the peninsula was covered in refuse, including plastic bottles and fishing nets, that had drifted ashore.
To help protect Shiretoko, a nonprofit organization in Rausu is sponsoring an ecological tour called the Cape Shiretoko Clean Operation.
The tour is not easy as participants have to walk 3 km on the beach shouldering garbage. But they get the opportunity to see wilderness at the tip of the peninsula that is usually off-limits.
They also get to board a vessel from which they can see whales and brown bears. Six such tours were organized last year, in which a total of 180 people from across Japan collected about 2,200 tons of garbage.
But even as the garbage is collected, more drifts ashore.
Kenichi Minato, the NPO’s representative, isn’t ready to give up.
“We would like people around the world to see the beauty of Shiretoko,” he said.
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