As much as Covid-19 has unleashed devastating effects on global travel, it also marks a turning point for tourism to revive as a less impactful and more meaningful industry.
An encouraging sign amid the current crisis is a strong awakening of Japan’s travel industry in sustainable tourism, according to Masaru Takayama, founding chair of Asian Ecotourism Network, board member of Japan Alliance of Responsible Travel Agencies and owner of Spirit of Japan.
“Many Japanese travel associations are now promoting sustainable travel, placing an emphasis on keeping with the local lifestyles and awareness in promoting the destination,” said Takayama, who sits on various committees including Kyoto City Tourism Promotion Council to steer the policies and guidelines. “People really get it now.”
Triggered by the launch of Japan Sustainable Tourism Destination Standard in June 2020 – of which Takayama was also involved in setting the standard as a committee member – more destinations in the country are trying to update their tourism management policies to be more sustainable, supported by the rollout of financial and technical aids from the Japan Tourism Agency.
As well, Takayama observes that many ecotourism operators previously dependent on overseas guests have converted their business models to cater to the domestic market – but with a sharper focus on sustainability.
“For example, the lodges with organic farms now are providing takeaway lunches instead of receiving overnight guests. Some are investing time and effort to digitise their tours and holding periodic sessions online to explain their products. Others are revisiting and rewriting their policies to prioritise local sourcing and employment that is a more reliable form of business practice.”
Sustainability, said The Ryokan Collection’s founder and CEO Hiroki Fukunaga, has always been a key tenet of Japan’s long-established ryokan culture, which dates as far back as 1,300 years ago. And hence there has not been notable changes in how ryokans operate in the wake of the pandemic, he added.
Sea kayaking at Shiretoko Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Hokkaido. Photo Credit: Masaru Takayama
A mindful awakening
A silver lining arising from the current pause in international travel is a heightened consciousness among consumers on how and where they want to next spend their holidays.
“We will not take light of travel anymore,” said Takayama. “People are more careful of their travel style and will do more research online before making a commitment.”
Visitor footfalls are likely to become more spread out when travel resumes, as he predicts that people will want to visit and stay longer in non-congested destinations, opt for locally owned places, and spend time appreciating local areas and understanding guides’ interpretation.
Small tourism operators are hence in an “advantageous” position to tap post-Covid travel demand, Takayama noted. Not only do they take a limited number of guests where incidences of congestion are lesser, they often operate amid vast nature or in rural areas where urbanites seek refuge during their holiday.
It’s an approach that ryokans are already operating on, Fukunaga points out. “A ryokan is a showcase of local culture, food and craftsmanship etc. If you stay in a ryokan, you can access to any of local culture touch points handpicked and carefully curated by the ryokan owners. Guests can walk the area, meet with people and spending money locally, which lends major support for the local economy and upholding of local culture. This mutual support in each area in turn leads to a sustainable society and tourism sector.
However, the growing mindfulness movement also brings to question if locals would be keen to embrace arrivals again, especially in rural areas which tend to adopt a more cautious stance towards outsiders. In renowned destinations like Kyoto, local tourism stakeholders are working on policies right now to prevent issues of overtourism from pre-Covid years.
“It’s time to invest in the future, not in the past,” Takayama stated, urging governments and DMOs to use the current time to prepare for sustainable management in anticipation of the resumption of global travel.
“Tourism needs to be managed anyway. Pre-Covid a lot of money was spent on promoting destinations, so time and efforts should be on how to manage tourism when it comes back.”
Fukunaga agreed, saying, “This is a great opportunity to think again about the sustainable tourism in order for ryokans to continue another 1,000 years.