World Heritage Islands forced to take measures to protect nature


Canoes full of tourists drove to the Pinaisara Falls, a popular destination on the island of Iriomotejima, known as “Japan’s last unexplored region”, in mid-July.

“The pool is very congested during peak hours and there are places on the floor where roots and stones have been repeatedly scraped off,” said Harumi Tokuoka, general director of the Iriomote Island Eco-Tourism Association.

To Iriomotejima was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List as part of the Southwest Islands on July 26th, the problems of the crowds only get worse.

Locals are working hard to protect nature on these pristine islands home to many endangered species, for example by adding composting toilets and a “collaborative” donation system.

Together with Iriomotoejima, which belongs to the city of Taketomi, the islands of Amami-Oshima and Tokunoshima in the prefecture of Kagoshima as well as the northern part of the main island of the prefecture of Okinawa received the status of world natural heritage.

The subtropical islands are the last of Japan’s natural world heritage sites.

It remains a challenge to prevent their excessive use, which leads to the deterioration of the natural environment due to an increased number of tourists.

An international organization that recommended their inclusion also mentioned Iriomotoejima by name and urged relevant parties to take protective measures while there are concerns about its impact on the daily lives of locals.

“We wanted to do something about it because we were concerned about the smell,” said Yuji Kunimi, 43, a canoe union member with local guides, pointing to a public toilet in a parking lot near the starting point for canoeing trips.

In the past, tour participants were often asked to relieve themselves on the way to the starting point at a “toilet place” along the way.

Thanks to the convenience of half-day tours, Pinaisara Falls now draws more than 30,000 visitors each year. But the popularity also caused problems with malodor and discarded tissue paper.

To address the situation, the union used subsidies from the Environment Ministry in December 2020 to set up composting toilets that use microorganisms to break down human waste.

However, the composting toilets only offer space for up to 60 people per day, while the waste from the mobile toilets has to be collected in a collection box before it is burned in an incinerator along with the residents’ waste.

Yakushima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture is located north of Amami-Oshima and the main island of Okinawa and is known for its millennia-old Japanese Jomon-sugi cedar.

At the entrance to the Arakawa Trail, which leads to the symbol of the island, there is a sign asking visitors to pay cooperation money to enter the mountain.

The donation system was introduced in 2017 to ask day climbers of middle school age or older to voluntarily pay 1,000 yen (US $ 9), while those planning an overnight stay in the mountains must pay 2,000 yen.

The money will be used for the maintenance of the trail, the removal of human waste from the toilets of the mountain huts and other purposes.

Yakushima became Japan’s first world natural heritage site in 1993 together with the mountainous region of Shirakami-Sanchi between the prefectures of Aomori and Akita.

The number of visitors to the island in the 1993 financial year was around 200,000. Thanks to the recognition, however, the number continued to rise, with more than 400,000 tourists visiting the island in fiscal 2007.

But the tourist traffic jam along the way, which takes five hours on foot to get to Jomon-sugi, became a problem. Climbers had to walk in a long line and sometimes wait up to an hour to use a toilet.

Even though officials from Yakushima City tried to use donations to remove human waste that was previously buried in the mountain, the community continued to bleed red ink.

Officials considered introducing an entry tax to the island to secure additional funding.

However, the idea was abandoned due to concerns about its impact on the tourism industry. Instead, they decided to raise funds for cooperation on a voluntary basis.

In 2011, officials tabled a draft ordinance to limit the number of visitors to the Jomon-sugi area to 360 day-trippers per day. But it was rejected by the assembly, leaving a discrepancy between the two parties over a balance between conservation and use of nature.

Meanwhile, Okinawa Prefecture set the maximum number of tourists visiting Iriomotejima last year at 330,000 a year, or 1,230 a day.

That was just a target number, however.

The introduction of an entry tax to the island is also being discussed, but initially only for study purposes, according to the Ministry of the Environment.

To preserve the island’s natural environment, Taketomi City Hall, local tourism associations and other parties will set up the Iriomote Foundation this fall.

The entire association will only take care of practical tourism management tasks, such as setting up a licensing system for tourist guides and limiting the number of users at popular spots.

The officials ask for donations and hope for 20 million yen.

“We hope that we will receive support so that residents and visitors alike can enjoy the blessings of nature,” said a city official.

(This article was compiled from reports by Tsuyoshi Takeda, Satoshi Okumura, and Makoto Hokao.)

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