Estimated number of foreign visitors to Japan's national parks hit record 6 million in 2017

by Chisato Tanaka

Staff Writer

The estimated number of foreign visitors to the nation’s national parks increased to a new record of 6 million last year, with a park in Kumamoto Prefecture, which was hit by natural disasters in 2016, having enjoyed a boost, the Environment Ministry has announced.

The figure, released Monday, was up by 10 percent from 2016, according to the ministry, which is targeting 10 million annual visitors before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Of the 34 national parks in Japan, Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park — a gigantic 121,695-hectare expanse of nature that includes portions of western Tokyo as well as Kanagawa, Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures — saw the highest number of foreign visitors with 2.58 million. It was followed by 926,000 visitors to Aso-Kuju National Park straddling Kumamoto and Oita prefectures, and 901,000 visitors to Shikotsu-Toya National Park in Hokkaido, which is easily accessible from New Chitose Airport.

Aso-Kuju National Park, which had struggled to boost visitor numbers in 2016 due to the Kumamoto earthquake and the eruption of Mount Aso that occurred the same year, experienced a 37.2 percent increase.

“The disasters had a huge negative impact on local tourism businesses around the park,” said Aso-Kuju Park administrator Yuji Morita.

“In fact, the number of Japanese tourists is still below the level before the Kumamoto disasters,” Morita added. “However, we have seen many returning foreign tourists from South Korea and other Southeast Asian nations who love exploring the mountainside hot spring spas.”

Sachiko Tanigaki, an Environment Ministry official carrying out the national park promotion program, attributed the inbound recovery to a new project called “Project to Fully Enjoy National Parks,” which turns local citizens’ ideas into national park tours.

Under the program, Aso-Kuju Park and seven other parks are being promoted to attract more inbound tourists.

“In the process of recovering from the calamities, we changed our mindset from merely bringing back the situation that had existed before … to transform the current reality into something more attractive,” Tanigaki said.

“Aso is famous for its unending stretch of beautiful grasslands, which local citizens have been protecting for ages … to attract foreign tourists. We came up with multiple grassland-centered activities such as early morning yoga and horseback riding,” Tanigaki said.

The seven other national parks promoting nature-exploration projects using ideas from local residents include whale-watching around the Karemashoto National Park in Okinawa, observing spherical green algae (marimo) in Hokkaido’s Akan-Mashu National Park and monitoring the giant salamanders endemic to Japan’s rivers in Daisen-Oki National Park in Okayama, Shimane and Tottori prefectures.

Visitors can also enjoy harvesting Sakura daikon in Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park in the Kyushu region; exploring the hot springs in Towada-Hachimantai National Park in two separate areas of Iwate, Aomori and Akita prefectures; watching traditional female pearl divers in Ise-Shima National Park in Mie Prefecture; and hiking along the trails in Nikko National Park, which stretches across parts of Tochigi, Gunma, Niigata and Fukushima prefectures.

“We want more foreign tourists to see the great nature of Japan’s national parks, most of which have yet to be explored, while we also carefully protect them,” Tanigaki said.