Popularity may force curb on climbing Yaku Island

By SHINGO ONDA
Kyodo News

KAGOSHIMA — Since Yaku Island was placed on the World Heritage list 16 years ago, tourism has been booming.

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Arbor ardor: Tourists flock to the Japanese Jomon cedar trees on Yaku Island in Kagoshima Prefecture in June. Estimates of the trees' age range from 2,000 to 7,000 years. KYODO PHOTOS

Some 390,000 tourists flocked to the 500-sq.-km island south of Kagoshima Prefecture in fiscal 2008, up from an estimated 210,000 back in 1993.

More than 100,000 mountain climbers were among the tide last year, sparking a sewage-disposal problem.

The Environment Ministry, prefectural government, Yaku officials and local tourism association founded the “Yakushima Town Ecotourism Promotion Association” on Aug. 3 to deal with the issue. They are prepared to discuss limits on the number of mountain climbers.

What attracts people to the island are the Japanese Jomon cedar trees that are presumed to be 2,000 years old. Some say they are 4,000 years old and still others believe they have lived 7,000.

Yaku also boasts 1,936-meter-tall Mount Miyanoura, which is on the list of 100 celebrated mountains in Japan.

Island authorities had placed cesspool-type toilet facilities in its mountainous areas and buried the waste nearby. But the facilities were unable to cope with the rise in visitors and water quality deteriorated.

Last year, the Yaku town office and other entities solicited donations to cover the cost of removing sewage. They collected about 30 percent of the ¥40 million needed.

The Environment Ministry detected colon bacilli in a study of wetlands in the vicinity of the toilet facilities. Islanders said some places were littered with tissue apparently because tourists refused or could not wait in line at the facilities.

They added that climbers have trampled on tree roots on the side of mountain trails while passing each other.

Meanwhile, managers of private “minshuku” tourist homes said environmental conservation is important but any decline in the number of tourists would affect their livelihood.

Clean living: The age of Jomon cedar trees on Yaku Island at times exceeds 1,000 years because the soil there is sterile.

Clean living: The age of Jomon cedar trees on Yaku Island at times exceeds 1,000 years because the soil there is sterile.

The newly established association has a number of issues to discuss, such as setting a cap on the number of climbers and achieving effective means to carry out the restrictions without running up costs.

“The problem is not simply cutting down on the number of tourists,” said Denshiro Shiiba, 63, the secretary general of the local tourism association. “We should create a new style of traveling, like shifting tourists concentrating on Jomon cedar trees to diving and watching sea turtles.”

Some guides say the reason tourists come to Yaku is to see the Jomon cedars, and otherwise they cannot lure visitors.

“We need the means to impose curbs that everyone agrees on,” said an official in the prefectural government’s nature conservation division. “Based on the opinions of people occupying different positions, we’d like to go ahead with discussions together with the local residents.”

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