World Heritage islands forced to take action to protect nature

Canoes packed with tourists headed for Pinaisara Falls, a popular tourist spot, in mid-July on Iriomotejima Island, dubbed “Japan’s last unexplored region.”

“The basin is heavily congested during peak hours, and there are places on the ground where roots and rocks have been repeatedly scratched,” said Harumi Tokuoka, general manager of the Ecotourism Association of Iriomote Island.

After Iriomotejima was inscribed on the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List as part of the Southwest Islands on July 26, crowds issues will only get worse.

Locals are working to protect nature on these pristine islands, which are home to many endangered species, by adding items such as a composting toilet and a “co-op” donation system.

Along with Iriomotoejima, which is part of Taketomi City, the islands of Amami-Oshima and Tokunoshima in Kagoshima Prefecture and the northern part of the main island of Okinawa Prefecture were granted World Natural Heritage status. .

The subtropical islands are said to be Japan’s last natural World Heritage site.

It remains a challenge to prevent their overexploitation which leads to 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 concerned parties to take conservation action, as the impact on residents’ daily lives raises concerns.

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

Previously, tour participants were often asked to relieve themselves at a “washroom” at the side of a path on their way to the starting point.

With the convenience of half-day tours, Pinaisara Falls now attract over 30,000 visitors each year. But popularity has also caused problems with foul odor and discarded tissue paper.

To remedy the situation, the union used grants from the Ministry of the Environment to set up a composting toilet that breaks down human waste using microorganisms in December 2020. Three toilet seats to use portable toilets had been installed in an area around the basin in 2019.

However, composting toilets can only accommodate up to 60 people per day, while waste from portable toilets must be collected in a collection box before being burned in an incinerator along with residents’ waste.

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

At the entrance to the Arakawa trail leading to the symbol of the island is a sign asking visitors to pay cooperation money to enter the mountain.

The donation system was introduced in 2017 to require climbers of a school-age day or older to voluntarily pay 1,000 yen ($ 9), with those planning to spend the night in the mountains having to pay 2,000 yen.

The money is used for trail maintenance, to remove human waste from toilets at mountain huts and for other purposes.

Yakushima became Japan’s first World Natural Heritage Site in 1993, with the mountainous region of Shirakami-Sanchi straddling the prefectures of Aomori and Akita.

The number of visitors to the island was around 200,000 in fiscal year 1993. But the figure continued to rise thanks to recognition, with over 400,000 tourists visiting the island during the year. fiscal year 2007.

But tourist congestion along the trail that requires five hours of walking to get to Jomon-sugi has become a problem. Climbers had to walk in a long line, sometimes waiting up to an hour to use the restroom.

Although officials in Yakushima town tried to use donor money to dispose of human waste previously buried in the mountain, the town continued to bleed red ink.

Officials considered introducing a head tax on the island to obtain additional financial resources.

But the idea was dropped due to concerns about the impact on the tourism industry. Instead, they decided to collect cooperation funds on a voluntary basis.

In 2011, the authorities submitted a draft ordinance to limit visitors to an area surrounding the Jomon-sugi to 360 day trippers. But it was rejected by the assembly, leaving a disagreement between the two parties on a balance between the conservation and the use of nature.

Meanwhile, the Okinawa Prefecture government last year set the maximum number of tourists coming to Iriomotejima at 330,000 per year, or 1,230 per day.

However, that was only a target number.

The introduction of a head tax on the island is also under discussion, although this is only as a study for now, according to the Ministry of the Environment.

In order to preserve the natural environment of the island, the Taketomi town hall, local tourist associations and other actors will create the Iriomote Foundation this fall.

The incorporated general association will deal exclusively with practical tourism management operations such as establishing a licensing system for guides and limiting the number of users in popular places.

Officials are soliciting donations and hope to raise 20 million yen.

“We hope that we can receive support so that residents and visitors 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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