Last week in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, Mount Fuji was admitted to an exclusive club. At the annual session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Japan’s highest peak – and arguably its most recognisable landmark – was formally named a World Heritage Site. The 3,776-metre volcano was one of 19 new additions to the list, bringing the total number of World Heritage Sites to 981. Mount Fuji was recognised as a place of spiritual significance and for its influence on Japanese art.
The timing of the designation was pertinent since Fuji-san’s official two-month climbing season has just begun. The first climbers to reach the summit cheered as the sun rose at 04.40 yesterday.
A famous Japanese saying has it that a wise man climbs Mount Fuji once but only a fool climbs it twice. What is clear is that the perfectly conical peak will now be welcoming more and more people. Last summer, 320,000 people climbed Mount Fuji, and travel agencies, hotel owners, bus companies and railway operators are all anticipating that Fuji’s new status will attract even more visitors – foreign and Japanese. One tour company is offering a trekking package that includes English-speaking guides to help foreign visitors up the peak.
Already, businesses around Mount Fuji are feeling the benefit. One shop renting mountain gear at the foot of Fuji-san said that pre-season orders were double those of last year and increased five-fold after last week’s news. Another said that people have been planning holidays all year in anticipation of Mount Fuji becoming a World Heritage Site.
Mount Fuji is Japan’s 17th World Heritage Site, something the country is proud of. And yet the honour has brought questionable benefits to the other sites so far. Yakushima, the pristine island off the coast of Kagoshima, was the first natural site in Japan to be listed back in 1993. Ever since, tourists have piled in. Their key targets are the island’s giant cedars and one tree in particular, known as Jomon Sugi, is now so thronging with tourists that it has been compared to a busy city street. Shirakawa-go, an exquisite rural village of silk-weavers’ houses in Gifu, is overrun with tour buses and no longer the isolated spot it once was.
Already people in the areas around Mount Fuji have started raising anxieties about environmental damage. The mountain has famously had a problem with rubbish for years, something that will only get worse as numbers increase. Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures are trialling a voluntary admission fee later in the season, although the sum of ¥1,000 (just under €8) is probably too small to deter most.
Tourism is a complicated business. Acknowledging areas of natural beauty is a worthy aim but it can have the effect of damaging the very environment it sets out to preserve. When the Michelin Guide first appeared in Tokyo in 2007, some restaurants said “No thanks” to the offer of stars, fearing an influx of visitors. So too, you have to wonder if some places might best be preserved by not making them a magnet for coachloads of visitors.
Fiona Wilson is Asia bureau chief for Monocle.