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Tourism influx poses a danger to environment

Date Posted: 2006-04-28

Okinawa is facing a dilemma, walking the tightrope of promoting tourism while protecting the fragile ecosystems.

More than 5,000,000 tourists visited Okinawa in 2005, and Prefecture officials are pleased with the increased number of visitors spending money on the islands. Their forecasts for 2006 are for an even larger number of holiday guests.

The problem, particularly in the northern parts of Okinawa’s main island, is too many hikers, trekkers and mountain climbers damaging or destroying the natural environment. Mountain greenery, flowers and soil are being trampled, leaving bare earth at the mercy of the weather.

In the Higashi Village area, the concerns are bordering on danger, with rocks threatening to topple down mountainsides, forcing the Village to post signs to keep visitors out.

Higashi Village is working with the Prefecture Natural Preservation Section, placing areas off limits. “This is the first time we’ve made limitations to keep the natural environment within our village,” said a village official. “We also think keeping people out and adding restrictions is necessary.” Higashi Village says they’ve watched tourists destroy the mountains, and are afraid further intrusions will cause rocks to plummet down onto the tiny road that winds its way through the area.

So many hikers have arrived by car in the northern area, says one official, that the roots of trees are being laid bare, flowers are dead, and the Kesaji River is suffering damage to its banks. The village elders say there are too many school groups and other tourists visiting, pointing out that more than 300 schools visited last year. Some schools had 500 children walking through the area.

Canoes have damaged 40 mangrove trees in a season when Higashi Village saw 240,000 tourists visiting. A village leader says concerns are bordering on panic. “No more, thank you. We don’t need that many children.”

Tourism brokers, mainly from mainland Japan, are upset at the Okinawa reaction. “Don’t take business away from us,” says one travel agent. “We are bringing money to Higashi Village. What’s wrong with that?” Village Eco-Tourism Association Chairman Jun Yoshimoto replied back, telling the mainlanders “Don’t say that. Natural forests, birds, and trees are ours. We don’t want money,” he says, “but we do want our natural environment and we want our beautiful village.”

The move is a reversal of Higashi Village’s earlier efforts to promote itself to tourism brokers. Now, the village is saying “stop promoting us!”

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