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Kyoto by The Sea – 2022 WTM Responsible Travel Winner

Kyoto by the Sea: Responsible Tourism for Ine Bay, one of Japan’s Most Beautiful Villages

Kyoto by The Sea and Japan-san won a ‘One to Watch’ Award at the Sustainable Travel Awards held at World Travel Market in London in November 2022.

The award was given in large part because of the proactive approach taken to avoid over tourism in Ine Bay in the future.

The town is picturesque and unique. The boat houses (funaya) date back to the 1800’s and many have been owned and occupied by families for generations. Fishing remains the primary occupation and source of income for many of those living in Ine. The town has its own small sake distillery and family owned restaurants serving local fish and produce.

In many ways Ine is a very easy destination to market and encourage tourists to visit.

Kyoto by The Sea and Japan-san want to attract the right tourists in the right numbers at the right time of year. By controlling tourism now we want to avoid the problems of other destinations forced to act after problems associated with over tourism have developed. We don’t want to be in the position of having to ‘demarket’ Ine.

The situation we find ourselves in with Ine isn’t unique. There are many destinations across the globe with the potential to attract significantly more tourists. We want to demonstrate that, by establishing a strategy and plan before visitor numbers increase dramatically, a destination can develop a sustainable tourism economy that benefits local people, retains existing ways of life and continues to be attractive for visitors.

We hope to create a model for future tourism development. Tourism is a conversation between travellers, the travel trade and local communities. All parties need to be involved in the planning of tourism development. Our approach is designed to ensure that Ine retains its unique way of life, while also sharing this spectacular village with the world.

Jesse Efron, Kyoto by The Sea Overseas Promotion Manager is quoted as saying:

‘When looking at the alternative, such as places like Venice (which we site because it is similar in some key ways) where over-tourism has made it so natives of Venice either can’t or don’t even want to live in their own city, it seems unethical to promote Ine without considering the long term effects of its popularity. This is a small village with people who live a way of life not found elsewhere in Japan. To lose that would be a cultural travesty. The people have traditions and sustainable fishing methods that go hand in hand with the environment they live in. To change any aspect of that could destroy the balance they have built for hundreds of years. As a group charged with the promotion of the region, we are responsible to the people and areas we are promoting. Without the beautiful bay or the mountains to protect Ine, there would be no people. Without people, there would be no funaya boat houses or culture to protect. Without the unique culture or boat houses, there would be nothing to visit’.

It’s also worth noting that, more broadly, Japan is cautious about tourism development. Sensitive areas like Ine haven’t been opened up to foreign visitors, often because of concerns about the possible negative impact of tourism. It’s hoped that, with the proactive approach taken with Ine, a responsible and sustainable approach to tourism will be adopted for other parts of a country where travellers from Europe all too often visit the same sites.

This is only the first step of what will be a much longer process. We are looking twenty years down the road and asking ourselves what Ine will be like, what the neighbouring region will be like. We plan to implement this model in other areas, as well as working towards full GSTC certifications in the region.

The neighboring city of Miyazu, home to Amanohashidate (one of Japan’s Three Scenic Views) has already started the process of moving towards overall sustainability in tourism. With a host of intangible cultural properties and heritage arts, the entire region will benefit from the efforts that we have put into the responsible and sustainable development of Ine.

International tourism in Japan is less developed than for other affluent countries accounting for less than half that of the UK measured as a % of GDP (0.7% versus 2%). The government has an ambition to significantly increase the number of overseas leisure visitors. This ambition is driven only partly by economic factors.

Opening up Japan to more travellers, particularly from Europe, is seen as a positive way of strengthening relationships and improving understanding. Japan has, historically been a comparatively insular society. The proactive approach taken to developing responsible travel in a sensitive area like Ine is being seen as a possible case study for how Japan can attract more tourists without having a negative impact on small, historically important communities.

The Ine Responsible Travel Plan

The boat house village of Ine is one of the seven towns in the Kyoto by the Sea region. It is a unique village in that there are 230 boat houses (funaya) built along the bay, which is a rarity in Japan. It holds the distinction of being one of Japan’s Most Beautiful Villages and Ine Bay is a part of UNESCO’s World’s Most Beautiful Bays Club.

Ine is a village that is trying to balance traditional livelihoods and ways of life with a sharp increase in interest from tourists. The boat houses are hundreds of years old and were integral to the tradition of fishing which remains a vital part of the local community.

Working with Kyoto by The Sea DMO, Japan-san’s approach to developing responsible tourism in Ine has three key elements:

1) Developing a clear brand proposition and identifying the key target audiences.

The tourists that will visit the town will also be enjoying the wider Kyoto-by-the sea region. It wasn’t realistic to attract a type of tourist to Ine without considering the region as a whole.

A brand strategy was developed that clarified the target audiences, brand essence and the ‘reasons to believe’. This was summarised in the form of a ‘brand key’. The brand essence, (‘The Origin of Japan’) focussed on the cultural, artistic and culinary experiences of the wider Kyoto by the Sea region. This brand essence, and the messages that support it, guide our interaction with DMC’s and tour operators.

This strategic approach to how Ine and the wider Kyoto by The Sea region is presented has proved invaluable in demonstrating a professional approach - both to the local tourism bodies and the broader industry.

For Ine, the target audiences identified are:

- Experienced mature, affluent travellers with a love of history and the arts

- Young, educated professionals keen to take the road less travelled

- Small group tours with a focus on crafts and culture

This helps focus the DMO’s work in both product development (how visitor experiences are presented) and selecting tour operators to work with that have the right customer profile.

2) Gaining commitment from the local community and travel trade partners

For leisure travellers from Europe and the US; Japan is a destination where the majority of tourists seek the help of travel professionals. This will include travel agents, tour operators and DMC’s. If we are to succeed in implementing a responsible tourism strategy we need to ensure that the travel trade are communicating with the right audiences with the right messages. This has been achieved through personal meetings, FAM trips and the ‘Ine Pledge’ (see below).

One of the major challenges faced in encouraging overseas tourists to visit Ine has been the lack of any relationship between Ine tourism and the international tourism trade. Historically the boat houses haven’t been made available for trade bookings and little effort has been made to link stays in Ine to spend on other cultural experiences.

A key part of this strategy was to build the necessary relationships and trust with partners that understood the sensitive nature of the destination. This was achieved through presentations to Ine tourism plus FAM trips and meetings with key DMC’s.

3. The Ine Pledge – Tour Operators and DMC’s commitment to responsible travel

The Ine Pledge was created to gain commitment from the travel trade to developing responsible tourism for Ine. The Pledge comprises three key elements:

A) A commitment to a minimum two-night stay for those visiting Ine. This helps Ine benefit from tourism spend on eating out, visitors enjoying a wider range of experiences and promoting slower, more mindful travel.

B) The inclusion of at least one experience that directly contributes to local tourism including local crafts, guided tours and sushi making. The minimum value of an experience to be at least 6,000 Yen per person (about £40).

C) A promise to inform and educate those visiting Ine about the history, culture and the importance of adhering to local cultural norms and standards of behaviour. Tour operators were provided with relevant information about behaviour and cultural history.

The Ine Pledge is supported and promoted by carefully selected DMC’s including Exo and Inside Japan, together with their tour operator and agent partners.

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