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Eco-tour guides balance nature and tourism

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-09-04

Keeping development under control has always been a problem for most tourist destinations. The dilemma, in most cases, is trying to take advantage of the area's natural beauty and resources to improve the local economy, while at the same time maintaining a balance between development and nature, so that the very same nature you are promoting does not become destroyed.

Okinawa is facing this exact same problem. Coastal development has destroyed many pristine beaches and coral reefs. Bad planning has left some towns and cities choked with traffic and pollution, while causing others to become ghost towns.

Hideyuki Yamashita and Takafusa Morimoto are eco-tour guides trying to make sure the same mistakes do not happen on the island of Iriomote. Although the island is a designated national park, there have been, and still are threats to the island from developers. "Before the 'bubble', there was talk of building a large resort here, but since the recession there have been no such plans," said Morimoto. Resorts are not the only worries for ecologists on the island - bridges, roads, and other public works projects could also affect the nature and wildlife of Iriomote.

"I am very worried about the problem of trash disposal and sewage treatment. It is more of an immediate threat right now than development," added Yamashita.

His counterpart, Morimoto, also expressed the same concerns. "The island's population is small, but we receive many tourists every year," he said. Because the island is so isolated, all products must be shipped in to meet the demands of tourists. However, the items coming into the island must also be disposed of, and with little funds, the local government is having a difficult time dealing with such matters.

The two men have been focusing their energy on getting people to both respect and love Iriomote's fragile environment through eco-tourism. Yamashita, who is forty two years old and was born in Hokkaido, began doing eco-tours three years ago. The ex-grand prix, amateur race car driver explained his reasons for coming to Iriomote and doing what he does, "The nature here is incredible. The ocean is beautiful, and the mountains are filled with rivers and waterfalls. There are not many places like this left in Japan." Indeed, Iriomote is truly a nature-lover's paradise, with approximately 90% of its area covered with nature, but it was actually the waves that first brought Yamashita to Iriomote's coastline. "I've been surfing and wind surfing for 23 years. I still surf, but I have really come to love the rivers and the mountains too," he said.

Morimoto arrived in Iriomote over twenty years ago from mainland Japan. "Back then there were not many tourists, so I was doing Hobbie rentals and other part time jobs," he explained. A few years ago Morimoto started to use his knowledge on the nature and history of Iriomote to create eco-tours for mainland tourists.

Both Yamashita's "Mayagusuku Eco-Tours", and Morimoto's "Banana House Eco-tours" are designed to get people out to the remote places of the island to enjoy and experience the fabulous nature it possesses. They bring you up rivers through mangrove forests, and into the jungle to stunning waterfalls. They both have incredible knowledge about ecology, and part of their job is explaining to their customers about the eco-system and some of its individual parts.

Their tours are a great educational tool for both children and adults, and many customers come back year after year.

"There are many rare plants and animals here on Iriomote. I enjoy showing people these rare creatures," said Morimoto. "I think people, after seeing this wonderful place, come to understand that we need to protect these species."

The two men are also members of Iriomote's first "Eco-Toursism Association", made up of 35 members representing various organizations and businesses. The group has set guidelines to follow concerning the ocean, rivers, mountains, and culture. "It is important that we follow some basic rules, so that the term 'eco-tours' is not abused," explained Yamashita. "It is also important to make sure the rules do not become too complicated. If you start making things too difficult, people will tend to be against the whole idea. One of the main goals is for people to be able to enjoy themselves within nature."

Trying to keep the balance will prove to be difficult as the eco-tourism industry grows. It is also up to tourists themselves, to act as good stewards of nature to help lessen the negative impacts tourism carries with it.

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