KYOTO — The ancient capital of Kyoto, already a major tourist destination, is moving forward with plans to further boost the number of domestic and international visitors.

But the construction of an aquarium that will feature live dolphin shows as a way to attract more tourists is being opposed by local Japanese and foreign residents, who have called the project an environmental hazard and a slap in the face for Kyoto’s cultural heritage.

Opposition groups are suing the city over the project and have launched a campaign to get foreign and domestic tourists to boycott the aquarium when it opens next year.

“Japan already has 100 aquariums, the highest number per person of any country in the world. If people want to go to an aquarium in the Kansai region, they can visit the one in Osaka. It makes no sense economically, environmentally or culturally to build an aquarium in Kyoto,” said Masanori Nishimoto, a local resident and one of the leaders of the campaign opposing the project.

Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa, who has supported the project from the beginning, says the aquarium will not only be a place of entertainment but a living laboratory where visitors can learn about the marine environment.

“Modern zoos and aquariums that contribute to biodiversity are the models for the Kyoto aquarium. It will be a facility where everyone, young and old, can enjoy themselves while learning about how life is interconnected,” Kadokawa told local media last summer following his decision to grant approval for the aquarium’s construction.

It is being built in Umekoji Park, a 20-minute walk from Kyoto Station, and is expected to open in spring 2012. The 11.7-hectare park includes small forested areas and streams, as well as a large open field, and can hold up to 50,000 people.

The new aquarium is expected to bring in 2 million visitors annually during its first few years, although Kadokawa has said attendance could eventually drop to 1 million annually.

Last November, after a long domestic and international PR campaign by local residents to stop the project, a lawsuit was filed in the Kyoto District Court against the mayor, calling on him to withdraw permission for construction. More than 70 plaintiffs have now joined the suit, which argues the mayor approved the aquarium without proper prior public consultations.

The lawsuit warns the aquarium will damage Umekoji Park’s natural beauty and compromise its role as an emergency evacuation center. It also claims the aquarium will generate 4,800 tons of carbon dioxide annually in the city where the emission-capping Kyoto Protocol was signed.

But opponents are particularly angry over the planned dolphin shows. The lawsuit cites research indicating that dolphins live only about a third as long in aquariums as in the wild. Former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry, who appeared in the Academy Award winning documentary “The Cove,” has also voiced his opposition to the planned dolphin shows.

Other problems, the lawsuit asserts, include environmental damage to surrounding areas by the increased numbers of cars and buses that will transport those 2 million tourists annually to an area where traffic is already congested.

Potential traffic gridlock and accidents have raised concerns among residents around the park, even those not opposed to the aquarium in principle.

Nishimoto and other plaintiffs say the lawsuit will probably take between six months and a year to settle. Kadokawa has not publicly commented on the suit, but he has promised measures to deal with the expected increased vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

A survey by the city conducted several years ago showed 70 percent of respondents opposed the aquarium — although there were only 249 respondents. Of these, 145 were firmly opposed and 24 were generally opposed to the aquarium. Thirty-eight voiced their support, while the remaining 22 said they supported the idea in principle.

Some in Kyoto’s international community are also protesting. Michael Lambe, a British national and blogger, and Chris Rowthorn, an American tour guide and international guidebook writer, are leading a bilingual postcard campaign to get Kyoto’s foreign visitors to boycott the aquarium if and when it opens.

Over the coming days, 1,000 postcards in English and Japanese informing the Kyoto mayor that the undersigned will boycott the aquarium will be distributed at tourist sites and other locations around the city.

“We also intend to seek the support of international environmental groups such as Greenpeace, and Ric O’Barry, who has lent his voice to our efforts,” Lambe said at a recent event sponsored by the aquarium’s opponents.

At the moment, the international campaign is focusing on Western tourists. In 2009, tourists from North America, Oceania and Europe accounted for about 62 percent of Kyoto’s nearly 784,000 foreign visitors who stayed at least one night.

However, members of the Kyoto Municipal Assembly have expressed hope the aquarium will attract more Chinese tourists.

With the relaxation of visa requirements on Chinese tourists that went into effect last summer, competition between Kyoto and neighboring Osaka for the lucrative market for Chinese tourists has intensified.

Kyoto sees the aquarium as a way to attract both Chinese tourists, who city and local business surveys reveal have less of an interest in the city’s traditional culture than Westerners, and groups of Japanese schoolchildren, who often visit the city on school trips.

Opponents counter that because Chinese tours often include visits to Kyoto and Osaka, where there is already an aquarium, there is no need for another one in Kyoto.

They also question whether schools will be willing to send more children to Kyoto simply because there is an aquarium.

The campaign against the aquarium comes as Kyoto is stepping up official efforts and making new investments to attract more tourists.

On Jan. 13, Kadokawa announced a project with the Japan Tourism Agency to create national government initiatives to lure more foreign tourists to the city. These include support for more family-oriented leisure projects such as the aquarium.

Kyoto drew 50 million visitors in 2008, but the figure dropped to about 47 million in 2009, largely due to the outbreak of the H1N1 virus known as swine flu.

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