National / Politics

Could growing tourism troubles unseat Kyoto's long-time mayor?

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Kyoto voters head to the polls Sunday to cast their ballots in a mayoral election that will have an impact on the city’s future policies for domestic and international tourism, at a time when voter concerns about the problems of too many tourists are paramount.

Incumbent mayor Daisaku Kadokawa, 69, is seeking a fourth term. He has the backing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, as well as the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, Social Democratic Party and Democratic Party For the People.

His opponents include Kazuhito Fukuyama, 58, who is backed by the Japanese Communist Party and Reiwa Shinsengumi, and Shoei Murayama, 41, who is running without party affiliation.

On the campaign trail, all three candidates have outlined their basic policies for dealing with over-tourism.

“Kyoto residents can’t get on overcrowded buses and there have been problems with private lodgings, while the number of hotels is increasing rapidly,” Fukuyama has observed at his rallies and in his manifesto. “It’s time to put tougher regulations in place on building new lodgings, and to separate bus routes into those for residents and those for tourists.”

Murayama also favors stricter regulations on building new hotels and cutting the municipal budget for tourism promotion. But he believes it’s too late to stop the building of hotels and is seeking to better manage foreign tourists.

“We need to find a way to get the image that Kyoto, like Singapore, is a place where people are vocal about (proper) manners,” he said at his rallies.

For his part, Kadokawa, the architect of Kyoto’s current tourism promotion policies, admits Kyoto is overcrowded. But he adds that tourism income is a plus for the city, as it helps fund expanded municipal services and creates jobs.

“Lodging facilities that do not contribute to the development and continuation of local culture will be refused permission to operate, and there are possibilities for construction in areas outside the city center,” Kadokawa has said at rallies. “We’re also making efforts for more foreign-language signs and to increase local patrols by residents who can give visitors foreign-language advice on proper manners.”

Over the past dozen years, Kyoto has become a major international tourist destination.

In 2008, when Kadokawa was first elected, just over 50 million people visited Kyoto, including 940,000 foreign visitors who spent at least one night in town. By 2018, the total number of visitors was around 53 million, after climbing to a high of nearly 57 million in 2015. The number of foreign visitors had reached 4.5 million by 2018.

The rapid increase in the number of people in Kyoto’s often narrow streets and at temples and shrines brought with it a hotel building boom and increased revenue. Visitors spent ¥1.3 trillion total in 2018, with foreign tourists accounting for about ¥372.5 billion.

But it also brought problems. While tourist-focused businesses in central Kyoto, as well as large temples and shrines, benefited financially, many smaller shops and neighborhoods in other parts of the city did not.

Complaints about ill-mannered tourists, which sometimes meant they simply didn’t know what was considered rude in Kyoto, became legion. Reports of ambulances stuck in Kyoto’s crowded streets, and of foreign tourists chasing after geisha (geiko in the Kyoto dialect) to get selfies, made headlines.

This led to more foreign-language signage, and neighborhood patrols either instructing visitors on what the proper behavior was or telling them what they could not do.

So it was no surprise when 48.8 percent of respondents in a recent Kyoto Shimbun poll also indicated that current tourist numbers should not be increased.

Only 15.7 percent favored policies aimed at increasing the number of tourists. That said, 15.4 percent responded that they also favored city policies that would lead to an increase in only wealthy tourists. What income level that might mean was not made clear.

Sentiment against current tourism policies might benefit Fukuyama on Sunday, and will be a key factor in deciding the winner. But media polls earlier this week still showed that Kadokawa was leading the other two, thanks to his experience and multiple party support.

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