When is a ghost not a ghost?
When it is, in fact, graffiti attributed to a 23-year old Australian tourist who this past May went on a spree of tagging the word “ghost” at various locations throughout the city of Kyoto, including bridges along the Kamo River, on street signage and inside a McDonald’s restaurant.
He also left the trail for all to see online, posted to his Instagram account, before he was apprehended by police.
The incident reignited a debate over how best to handle the unprecedented tourism influx — a debate that has grown louder as the number of overseas tourists continues to surge.
In 2018, more than 31 million foreign tourists came to Japan, the vast majority venturing from neighboring Asian countries. The government aims to reach the 40 million milestone in 2020 — in what is expected to be a bumper year as Tokyo hosts the Olympics and Paralympics. By 2030, the target is to welcome an astounding 60 million inbound tourists.
In 2017, nearly 54 million tourists — both domestic and foreign visitors — crowded into Kyoto, a city of 1.5 million.
This has lead to overcrowding at World Heritage sites such as Kiyomizu Temple, a designated national treasure, and Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine, an Instagram sensation known for its picturesque rows or vermilion torii gates.
But it’s not just temples and shrines that have had to deal with the staggering tourist numbers: The city’s fleet of public buses are another battleground where locals and visitors vie for access.
With such a surge in numbers, tension is inevitable.
The writing’s on the sand
Tottori Prefecture has long been a favorite for Japanese tourists who are drawn to the rolling sand dunes on the Sea of Japan coast. But foreign visitors now account for about half of all tourists to the dunes, up from 20 percent a decade ago, according to prefectural authorities.
For a few of them, the dunes are seen as a massive natural canvas.
In January, one visiting couple were ordered to clean up a giant message they had etched into the sands. What was the offending message? “Happy Birthday Natalie.”
To combat sand graffiti, the authorities have increased the number of signs — and languages they are displayed in — that warn visitors etching messages into the dunes is prohibited.
“We don’t want to just say ‘no’ to visitors who come to Tottori,” said Shinji Kawamoto, a representative of the prefecture’s natural environment division. “But we have to think about the way that tourists can fully enjoy sightseeing and also pay attention to local customs.”
This is the crux of the challenge for Japan, says Graham Miller, professor of sustainability and business at the University of Surrey in England, who also serves as a distinguished professor at Wakayama University.
“Japan exerts such a strong social control over its populace, and that control can’t ever be as effective over its visitors, so there feels like this is inevitably going to result in tension,” Miller said.
According to a survey released last month of 138 municipalities nationwide, the Japan Tourism Agency found traffic jams and tourists’ manners to be major issues that need to be addressed.
The same survey found that overtourism — which can impact lives of citizens and quality of visitor experiences in negative ways — is not a severe problem compared to other international destinations.
But for others, that finding remains debatable.
“I believe Kyoto clearly finds itself in a state of overtourism,” said Yoshiyuki Ishizaki, a professor at Ritsumeikan University and an expert on the effects of tourism.
“Although the situation seems to resemble that in Florence, (Italy,) Kyoto is a larger city than many tourist cities in Europe, so it has managed to maintain urban functions to some degree.”
All are not welcome
What Japan is experiencing now: The bad manners and destructive behavior associated with mass tourism “is a problem the world over — and it’s growing,” said Alex Kerr, an author and conservationist, who lives for part of the year in Kameoka, near the city of Kyoto.
Kerr cited several examples, from the closing of the beach in Phi Phi, Thailand, used in the film “The Beach,” where tourists were destroying the shore and its coral, to the destruction of a California desert, where a superbloom attracted hordes of visitors keen to capture the event on Instagram.
“There are two separate problems going on here: bad behavior and crowd behavior,” Kerr said.
While he thinks there is little that can be done to regulate bad behavior — apart from meting out penalties to transgressors — some tourist destinations are trying out novel approaches.
Miller highlighted Iceland and Palau, which have both adopted a “pledge” system, whereby tourists sign vows committing to certain forms of behavior before arrival.
“There is no evidence I have seen yet of how these pledges are working. And there is the risk that it is patronizing and cringey, but it is certainly an approach that some countries are taking in order to try to address the issue (of unruly behavior),” Miller said.
But Kerr thinks that Japan’s tourism chiefs need to adopt more radical approaches, especially when it comes to crowd behavior.
In his article titled “Destroying the Country with Tourism” published in a monthly magazine last year, Kerr argues that tourism needs sophisticated techniques of management to better deal with the influx.
“It’s a philosophical sea change,” he said. “The days when ‘all are welcome’ are over.”
Kerr cites the over-trodden path through the bamboo grove in Arashiyama, northwest of Kyoto city, as a test case for “a radically new approach.”
While it was “once a place that symbolized Kyoto’s meditative calm,” Kerr thinks it “has become a cliche of a tourist frenzy.”
The approach he suggests is to limit the number of visitors, as well as the time they can spend at a site. Museums and other attractions across Europe already do this, such as in the Spanish city of Barcelona, which has operated a ticketed system since 2013 at Parc Guell, a World Heritage site designed by Antonio Gaudi.
For Japan, or at least Kyoto, a similar system is something that could be employed to limit tourist numbers and preserve sites’ character and spirit, especially during peak visiting times in the spring and autumn.
When Maighread Kelly, an Irish national, visited Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine with her partner in late March, they had planned a short hike through the torii and up into the hills.
“However, we quickly realized that this would not be possible as the route was very overcrowded, which would have been fine as long as we could move at a good and steady pace,” she said.
In the end the pair gave up, as it was almost impossible to move “due to large numbers of people taking selfies and holding up the line.”
Ritsumeikan’s Ishizaki thinks that, at least in Kyoto, the tipping point for more restrictions on tourist numbers has been reached.
The problem, though, is how to accomplish this.
Venice has installed gates, similar to ticket barriers at train stations, on some of its busiest thoroughfares, but Ishizaki isn’t so sure this would work in Kyoto. Where would they be placed, and how would they interfere with the lives of locals, he asked.
When in … Japan
Before any of his clients arrive in Japan, Russ Hewick, the founder and owner of Dragonfly Tours Japan, sends on an information pack that includes detailed information on Japanese norms and customs, outlining basics from onsen (hot spring) etiquette to not eating while walking on the street.
According to Hewick, his clients, which tend to be older and travel in small groups, are drawn to Japan for its culture.
“Their reason for coming here is to learn about culture and history, and they’re sensitive towards Japan and its etiquette.”
But as Miller points out, a large chunk of tourists are increasingly drawn to Japan for shopping, sports and gambling. They’re likely to make cultural faux pas, but are probably less concerned by these because “culture is not their reason for coming to Japan.”
Hewick thinks large-scale tour operators need to do more.
“The operators must take some responsibility to say ‘You can’t push, you can’t spit, you can’t shout, you can’t yell on your phone on the train,’” he said.
“I’m sure some of them do,” Hewick added, “But they could do more.”
As for the eating while walking, while some Japanese people are vehemently opposed to it, Ishizaki points out that “the younger generation does not view it as that big of an issue.”
A way forward
Getting tourists to pitch in, in the form of donations, is an avenue Japankuru Funding, a Tokyo-based crowdsourcing startup, is exploring.
The startup traces its history to the winter of 2016, when a Hokkaido farmer chopped down a lone tree on his farm in the town of Biei — making headlines across the country.
The aging poplar, known as the “Philosophy Tree,” had blown up on social media, becoming a magnet for tourists. But worried about the condition of the tree, and fed up with tourists gallivanting around it, the farmer ultimately decided to cut it down. This spurred local farmers to take action to promote a more sensible type of tourism.
Led by Tomoki Ohnishi, farmers in the area teamed up with Japankuru Funding to crowdsource funds to create signage that blends in with the bucolic surroundings, utilizing technology like QR codes to offer information in multiple languages.
The online campaigns are curated to target a certain audience, usually Chinese-, English- and Japanese-language speakers, explained Zak Holt of Japankuru Funding.
In lieu of tourist pledges and donations, tourism experts agree that what is likely to happen is more signage warning tourists of what they can and can’t do.
But even signage comes with its own set of problems. As Kerr points out, it’s foolhardy to create a sign to warn against every possible violation — although some local authorities try to do exactly that — leading to what Kerr calls “tourist pollution.”
“Tourism certainly does have negative consequences, and such rapid growth as Japan is now experiencing is like pressing fast forward on social change,” said professor Miller from the University of Surrey.
But, as Miller points out, it’s “worth remembering that often the younger population who appreciate the jobs, the bars, the restaurants, the more lively environment and are more tolerant of the noise and congestion, will likely have a much more positive perspective of tourism.”
And it’s the younger generation who will inherit the future, and all the tourists that come with it.