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World Heritage status threatens Japan's Ogasawaras

Ogi-ike, a popular tourist spot on the Minamijima island.

Publication Date : 04-07-2012


It has been one year since the Ogasawara Islands were registered as a World Natural Heritage Site, a designation that has brought both good and bad to the "Galapagos of the Orient".

Thanks to its World Heritage status, the island group in Ogasawara, Tokyo, has seen the number of tourists increase by 60 per cent in the last year. However, the boom has threatened valuable indigenous plant species and caused other problems, some of which the islands had never faced before.

The Ogasawara Islands, which have never been connected to a continent, are struggling to deal with the rapidly growing number of tourists and protect a sensitive ecosystem. Local people are seeking ways to strike a balance.

The only public transportation from central Tokyo to the Ogasawara Islands is the Ogasawara Maru ocean liner, which makes one or two round trips a week. Since the islands were added to the World Heritage list, tickets have been almost sold out during peak periods in spring and summer.

But due to overcrowded conditions in the main second-class cabins, operator Ogasawara Kaiun Co. reduced the maximum number of passengers from 1,036 to 768.

This improved conditions somewhat, but space remains limited as each second-class passenger is given only 180 centimeters by 60 centimetres of space, in which an adult can just manage to lie down. Luggage makes things even more crowded.

Passengers have to stay aboard for 25-1/2 hours amid these conditions.

Keiko Kaido, 73, of Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, booked a second-class room in a package tour last Wednesday.

"I heard beforehand the space was small, but...When I turned over, I bumped into a person next to me and hurt my lower back and hip," Kaido said.

Keisuke Shinkawa, an exhausted-looking 21-year-old university senior, said, "I had a hard time falling asleep because I couldn't straighten my legs."

Islands hit by 'mischief'

Despite the inconvenience in accessing the islands, World Heritage status has steadily boosted the islands' popularity as a tourist destination. According to the Ogasawara village government, a record high of 21,854 people visited the islands by the liner in fiscal 2011, up 61 per cent from the previous fiscal year. Tourists generated economic benefits of about 2.28 billion yen, a 53 per cent year-on-year increase.

However, concerns over the ecosystem have grown. Indigenous species account for 36 per cent of the plants, 28 per cent of the insects and 94 per cent of the snails and related creatures on the Ogasawara Islands.

To prevent alien species from entering, the municipal government has taken such steps as placing special mats at the liner's boarding gate since April to remove seeds possibly attached to passengers' shoes.

There are also problems the islands have never encountered before--in March, 112 branches were found snapped off Hahajimanobotan tree peonies and other plants native to the island along a walking path in the forest. In the southern part of the island, 21 branches were removed from Ogasawarabiro palm trees and other plant species.

An official of the Kanto Regional Forest Office said: "We've seen these problems over a wide area. It's never happened before."

Viewing the incidents as malicious mischief, the Environment Ministry has reported them as crimes to the Metropolitan Police Department on a charge of violation of the Natural Parks Law.

Worries over tourism boom

Other World Natural Heritage sites in the nation have struggled with similar adverse effects of a tourist boom. Local authorities on the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido last year limited the area tourists can enter after visitors trampled plants underfoot.

On Yakushima island in Kagoshima Prefecture, the local government considered restricting public access to the Jomon Cedar, a symbol of the island. However, an ordinance bill to this effect was voted down by the town assembly out of consideration for the local tourism industry.

Residents of the Ogasawara islands have mixed feelings about the isles' World Heritage status.

Yoshito Sanada, 24, who runs a cafe on Chichijima island, said: "I sometimes find it difficult to serve [customers because of the rapid increase in the number of tourists]. But it's important for us to continue having visitors even after the boom ends."

Katsumi Okuda, the 50-year-old general manager of Ogasawara Kaiun's sales department, is worried about the islands' future.

"[The islands] have attracted public attention as a World Heritage Site now, but unless we make efforts, its popularity will only be temporary."

However, Ryo Ishii, a 32-year-old guide concerned about the local ecosystem, does not have high expectations.

"I don't think people who come here only because the islands became a World Heritage site will spend 25-1/2 hours to get here again," he said. "If the situation stays the same, I think Ogasawara will return to being quiet islands where only those who really like Ogasawara will come."


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