The number of international and domestic tourists that visited Kyoto in 2023 alone was 32 million—and it continues to grow, according to news reports.

The surge in foreign tourists is due to many factors including, the weak yen, Kyoto’s world-famous landmarks and popular travel destinations. However, Kyoto’s size and layout are not built to withstand the massive amounts of people.

Interestingly, Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan until 1868 when it moved to Tokyo long after the Heian Era. Officials started to fear that the city would go through a decline after the loss of its designation as the capital city.

However, the merchants and politicians quickly took that fear and turned it into motivation to modernize the city, so a canal project was completed and railway systems were built. During the 1920s, Kyoto expanded into towns like Fushimi, Kii, Kadona and Otagi, which helped absorb other historical areas. By 1932, Kyoto successfully modernized itself and topped a population of one million.

Kyoto certainly noticed eager tourists sought its cultural value as compared with other parts of Japan. City officials would intentionally hold events at the same time as business conferences and expositions to allow for those traveling for business to enjoy other Kyoto activities. Following World War II, Kyoto set a goal to become an international tourist destination to boost their city’s economy.

The city’s rich traditional sites like temples and shrines paired with classic arts like tea ceremonies and geisha performances drew a wider audience than expected. Today, Kyoto is feeling more and more over-crowded with tourists, which does not sit well with the residents and businesses of the city.

A recent, bigger tourism issue in Kyoto has been the new ban on the streets of the Gion district which is home to traditional geisha entertainers. Many tourists hope to catch a glimpse of geisha in their traditional wear but some fail to remain respectful. News reports have documented tourists harassing geisha by chasing after them with a camera, trespassing on private property or touching their traditional kimonos.

In early 2024, Kyoto officials announced a ban on entering Gion’s private streets and taking photos in the area. There are now signs and fines of up to 10,000 yen (about $63 USD) for anyone that does not comply with the new regulation.

Another issue that Kyoto faces with the rapid growth of tourism is their public transportation system. While Kyoto has a well-run public train system, the city’s main transportation system are public buses, which have been getting even more packed as tourists have found them useful. According to a New York Times article published on June 13, many Kyoto residents have had longer wait times to board buses as multiple buses are filled with passengers, forcing local residents to wait for the next bus. Because Kyoto is a more residential and traditional city, local residents encounter tourists all across the city, making it hard for the residents of Kyoto to live their everyday lives.

Although tourist boost Kyoto’s economy, the strain that “tourism pollution” has put on the infrastructure and its citizen may not be worth it.

There are certainly some things that tourists can do to remain respectful towards the historical city of Kyoto while visiting. Tourists should remember that they are guests in Japan. They should adhere to local customs, such as keeping their voices low when exploring residential areas and religious sites, or riding the bus or subway.

Being eco-friendly is another big way that tourists can show respect for Kyoto, especially since the city is currently undergoing a city-wide sustainability act. Lastly, visitors should admire the cultural treasure that is Kyoto and not act disrepectful, such as chasing after geisha or damaging temples and shrines.

Tourists are undoubtedly necessary to Kyoto’s prosperity and will continue to visit the city because it is such a remarkable place, but allowing tourists to rule the city is not OK.

Working on different ways to allow a smoother harmony between Kyoto residents and tourists will guarantee a brighter future for the city.

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