Omotenashi Kyoto is on a Break from Japanese Hospitality

Netizens have seized the pandemic calm to ditch Japan's well-known hospitality for the sake of a city that has long been riddled with overtourism
A crowded street near the Kiyamizu Temple in Kyoto
A crowded street near the Kiyamizu Temple in Kyoto

Let's start off with a few stats From 2009 to 2015, the number of Chinese tourists in the US went up by five times, from 5,20,000 to 2.59 million. The latest number is expected to double to 5.72 million by the next year. In 2016, Chinese tourists&rsquo international travel spend accounted for more than a fifth of the total tourist spend&mdashquite the dragon&rsquos share. The following year, the Chinese took an unbelievable 142 million trips abroad, spending $258 billion (the next best was $135 billion by US tourists).

China may be the big daddy of all when it comes to outbound tourism and its residents&rsquo travel spends may continue to boggle the mind year after year. However, Japan&rsquos Kyoto, a favourite with Chinese tourists, seems to want none of it. The cultural capital of Japan, thanks to the ancient China influence on the city and its beautifully restored heritage attractions such as Zen gardens, shrines and temples, has been always been known to be overrun by Chinese tourists in addition to enthusiastic heritage aficionados from all over the world. Kyoto was built (circa 794) in the exact image of Chang&rsquoan, the capital city of China&rsquos Tang dynasty.

The outbreak of COVID-19 may have driven away the Chinese tourists out of the charming city in the island of Honshu, and the residents want to keep it that way. The comments section to a recent virtual tour of the former imperial capital saw much disapproval voiced by residents towards the attention that could possibly translate into a return on part of Chinese tourists. The comments alluded to the well-documented over-tourism problem in Kyoto and hailed the suspension of active travel, particularly that by the Chinese.

The fracas transpired in response to a virtual tour of Kyoto, organised by Fliggy, a travel platform owned by Alibaba, and the Western Japan Railway Company, on November 9. The tour was hosted by Tokyo Archie, a Japanese influencer of Chinese origin, and the tour was reported to have got 1,00,000 viewers to join in the first minute itself. However, soon the tour started drawing the ire of outraged netizens.

&ldquoJust stop it [Tourists] ruin the city and are annoying&rdquo said one commenter. Another wrote, &ldquoAre you kidding me Just as Kyoto was starting to get back to its beautiful self&hellipJust please stop.&rdquo Other commenters expressed their dismay at the crowds and the suffocation of the pre-COVID-19 times. One comment said, &ldquoThey really don&rsquot learn. If you rely on China the same thing will happen as before.&rdquo

After struggling with weak tourist inflow in the first decade of the century, Japan steadily succeeded in transforming itself as a travel market worth investing in. In a little over a decade, the number of foreign tourists in the country quadrupled, thanks in no small part to the Visit Japan campaign.

And a huge portion of tourists in Japan every year are the Chinese, often found thronging cities such as Tokyo, Sapporo, Okinawa and Osaka, apart from Kyoto. In 2019, the most visited country for the Chinese was Japan, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. Being interdependent in terms of trade, Japan and China recently agreed for a resumption in business travel soon. Kyoto might not like it, but a resumption in travel is going to be back eventually, even at the cost of upturning the brief tide of undertourism.

Activities such as seeing the cherry blossoms in early spring and enjoying the sights of maple trees in the autumn foliage season, enjoying hot springs, sampling local food, praying in the temples rank high on the list of Chinese tourists bound for Japan, according to the travel company Ctrip. And with an even more simplified visa application process for Chinese travellers, Japan seems only too happy to oblige. In Kyoto, the temples are a hit with these tourists, and the promenade along the Kamogawa river is of special sentimental value.

However, resentment among residents as to the numbers of Chinese tour groups flocking to Kyoto and other Japanese cities, has been simmering for a while now. Popular spots such as the Kiyomizu-dera Temple and the area around it, the Ginkaku-ji and Kinkaku-ji temples, Nishiki Market, Nijo-jo Castle are almost perpetually flooded with tourists, especially during the cherry blossom season. Of late, locals have also complained about overcrowded buses, bad waste disposal and an evident cultural clash&mdashthe last more of a problem concerning Western tourists. This also forced Kyoto&rsquos tourism authorities to come up with initiatives promulgating the social do-nots, or akimahen, and etiquette guides for ryokan.

In cities that have historic value and an unparalleled allure, residents protesting over-tourism has picked up pace in the past five years or so. Protests and backlash in the European cities of Paris, Amsterdam, Florence, Prague and Barcelona over poor dispersion, rising cost of living as a result of a steep growth in tourism, endangered safety and falling quality of life, have been rampant. Tourists littering and abusing the natural environment has been a problem in Iceland and in historical cities such as Venice and Dubrovnik, tourist numbers have gone out of control.

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