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Being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site can be game changing for a destination. That was certainly the case for the historic Japanese village of Shirakawa-go. This mountain hamlet features traditional gassho-zukuri buildings, which are often described as “prayer-hands constructions” because their steeply-sloped roofs resemble a common meditative hand position.
An historic area saved by tourism
Some people were already aware of this historic site before 1995, when it was first recognized by UNESCO. However, at that time, the tourist traffic was light. Many of the gassho-zukuri buildings were in a state of disrepair and were on the verge of having to be demolished because they were no longer stable enough to be considered safe. The traditional industries, like paper making, were being abandoned as people headed to urban areas seeking more lucrative opportunities.
So in a sense, the UNESCO designation saved this village, and a neighboring one in Gokayama, from being destroyed. The increase in tourism brought income to the area for necessary repairs. It also helped stop the "brain drain" to some extent.
Too much growth?
However, the number of visitors kept growing. And growing. Now, Shirakawa-go is overwhelmed, especially when it comes to non-Japanese tourists. International travelers are aware of the area because of its UNESCO designation. A new highway, built in 2008, has also helped increase the amount of tourist traffic.
In 1995, 670,000 people, mostly domestic travelers, visited the area. That number has now risen to 1.5 million. Non-Japanese-speakers have caused the biggest issue. Last year, 210,000 of the visitors to Shirakawa-go were foreigners. Just a decade ago, the number of non-Japanese tourists in the area was about 50,000. This four-fold increase has highlighted a significant weakness, the local tourism infrastructure is unable to capitalize on these travelers because of a lack of organization and English language ability.
Unable to capitalize on foreign tourist traffic
Those who are able to help are simply overwhelmed with requests for information about tours and local accommodation options. Some guest house owners have simply given up and just hang up the phone or delete emails rather than trying to communicate with foreigners.
Shirakawa's tourist authorities are well aware of this problem. To prove that it is an issue, they actually hired exchange students in Tokyo to help survey foreign guests in the village. The results were expected: the site itself was attractive, but finding accommodations and services was a nightmare for non-Japanese speakers.
For the time being, Shirakawa is doing well on the domestic market. However, 15-20 percent of its tourist traffic is at risk unless something changes.
Finding tools that can help
Some other rural prefectures in Japan have taken advantage of phone-based translation services. Operators at such places can communicate in English and a number of other languages. This could be helpful in Shirakawa, where family-run establishments and small hotels do not have the budget or the mindset to hire English-speaking staff. Such hotlines have been put to use in places like Shiga Prefecture in Southern Japan. This mainly-rural area can be difficult for independent travelers to navigate.
What does this tell other UNESCO applicants like the Plain of Jars in Laos? Gaining recognition from UNESCO (or getting any other sort of media buzz, for that matter) doesn’t mean much if you don’t have a system in place to take advantage of the influx of tourists.