Japan Limits Visitors to Protect Endangered Wild Cats

Visiting one of Japan’s most beautiful islands will soon become more hectic than before. Iriomote, a World Heritage site 120 miles east of Taiwan, is renowned for its untouched forest, stunning vistas and unique species. It hosted 290,000 visitors in 2019, the website said. The island is approximately 10 miles west of Ishigaki Island, in the heart of the Nansei chain, and is home to approximately 2,400 residents. 

Starting in April, the Okinawa prefectural government aims to restrict the total annual visits to Iriomote Island to 330,000 people. The island is popular for its natural beauty and for having a distinctive species of wildcats only found on the island. Much of the 115-square-mile island is a national park that is home to a critically endangered wild cat called the Iriomote yamaneko, of which only about 100 are known to exist.

In 2008, the population of wildcats was estimated to be on a downward trend with only about 100 living on the island, according to data from the Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center. According to the prefectural government, it will also limit visitor numbers in five natural World Heritage sites including where there are endangered species. Controls will vary from 30 to 200 people per day, and the government will also urge them to enter with a guide.

Plans to promote sustainable tourism on the island trace began in January 2020 after a series of tourism-related incidents, from water shortages and traffic accidents involving wildlife to habitat destruction, according to the department website. This recent decision has invoked Japan’s Ecotourism Promotion Act.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the island, which has around 2,400 inhabitants, was receiving about 300,000 visitors each year. This has resulted in issues caused by tourism such as water shortages and traffic accidents involving the endangered Iriomote wildcats. The number of sites on the island open to guided tours and daily visitation will also be limited, according to the announcement.

In addition to the general visitor cap on the island, the prefectural government confirms that five UNESCO World Heritage sites around Okinawa will be restricted in the year to come, including Mount Komi and the Nishida River. Those sites may be subject to tourist caps, timed entry and advanced bookings. Only 200 people per day may visit the Hinai River, 100 at the Sangara River, 30 at Mount Komi and Mount Tedou and 50 at the head of the Urauchi River.

Japan was slower than other countries to reopen its doors after the pandemic. The country began welcoming small groups of approved tourists in June 2022 before fully reopening four months later.

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