Japan is introducing a visitor tax at one of its most famous tourist sites to raise money to help protect and preserve its heritage for another thousand years.
Island of the Gods
Itsukushima Island, or Island of the Gods, is in the Hiroshima prefecture at the western end of the Inland Sea of Japan. Commonly known as Miyajima, which means Shrine Island, it is less than an hour from Hiroshima city centre and attracts millions of visitors annually: 4.66 million in 2019 before slipping to 1.88 million in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But why is this quaint island of just 2,000 inhabitants such a draw? The attraction is one of Japan’s most recognisable and iconic monuments: a nearly-thousand-year-old scarlet torii gateway to the Itsukushima Shrine. The gate appears to float out at sea, features in renowned artworks and has been designated among Japan’s top three scenic places.
The gate, in this version dating to 1875 but using centuries-old timber, traditionally marks the separation between the mundane world and the spiritual realm. As visitors jostle elbows to catch its otherworldly likeness and reflection on camera, that sense of encounter between the humdrum and the sublime is heightened – and perhaps not in a positive way.
In fact, the gate is such a popular sight that the local mayor has been forced to take action to combat what he says is overtourism’s negative impact on the surrounding environment. Anyone visiting the island will, from now on, have to pay a small tourist surcharge of 100 yen (0.63 euros). Visitors who intend to make multiple trips to the island can buy a pass for 500 yen (3.16 euros) for a year’s worth of scenic eyeballing. Children and locals will not have to pay the fee.
We hope that tourists will become stakeholders who join us to protect Miyajima by sharing responsibilities.Shunji Mukai, an official of the city’s planning department
Hospitable and secure
While some argue the charge is too little to have a limiting effect on tourist numbers, the local authorities might say that is precisely the point. They are seeking not to deter visitors, but instead to raise funds from them to improve the island’s infrastructure, and maintain and protect the shrine itself.
“We feel the need to create a hospitable environment for tourists, while securing the livelihood of islanders,” says Shunji Mukai, an official of the city’s planning department.
Other destinations around the world are grappling with similar dilemmas and implementing similar strategies. Venice introduced a tourist fee for day visitors recently and Iceland will begin collecting a new tourist tax from international visitors next year.