Japanese city struggles as its World Heritage sheen fades
Japan Times -- Jul 15
Five years ago, residents of Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture, believed that the registration of a local historical landmark as a World Heritage site would reinvigorate the typical Japanese regional city facing a constant decline in population.

But such optimism has now waned, with the site’s popularity as a tourist destination now fading.

In June 2014, when the UNESCO World Heritage Committee added the Tomioka Silk Mill and related sites on the World Heritage list, crowds of people in the city shouted “Banzai! Banzai!” and paraded on streets around the former silk yarn-reeling factory, which was originally established by the Meiji government in 1872.

The number of visitors to the landmark site of Japan’s industrialization in the final quarter of the 19th century peaked at 1,337,720 in fiscal 2014, thanks to the World Heritage designation. Since then, however, the city has seen the visitor count dropping by more than 100,000 each year. In fiscal 2018, the figure stood at 519,070, well under half of the peak level.

“After the World Heritage designation, outsiders rushed to open shops near the silk mill complex to attract tourists,” a local coffee shop waiter recalls. “But many of them have already been shuttered.”

Though the number of visitors still meets the Tomioka government’s target, Masae Okano of the city’s world heritage tourism division says that a further fall to around 400,000 would not be good from a conservation viewpoint, noting that maintaining a World Heritage site is also costly.

Following the heritage listing, the city started to work on repairing the buildings and facilities at the site. The project is expected to take around 30 years, costing more than ¥1 billion each year —a cost that has to be covered solely by admission fees. Expecting many people to come by car, the municipal government also spent funds to expand parking space.

News source: Japan Times
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