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Tottori Sand Dunes boosts foreign language warnings to curb defacement by tourists

Graffiti reading "Happy Birthday Natalie" is seen in January 2019, at the Tottori Sand Dunes in Tottori in this photo provided by the Tottori Prefecture natural green resources division.

TOTTORI -- The Tottori Sand Dunes, a major attraction here and one of the only environments of its kind in Japan, is increasing its foreign visitor-aimed signage and information to curb an increase in vandalism that officials attribute to non-Japanese speaking tourists' ignorance of site rules.

April 2019 marked 10 years since a Tottori prefectural ordinance banning graffiti and defacement of the landscape at the picturesque park came into force. The prefectural government says up until March 2019 they have recorded 3,334 incidents of "sand graffiti" in total, with fiscal 2018 alone witnessing 228 cases against fiscal 2017's 200 cases. Measures to improve rapidly increasing foreign visitor numbers' awareness of the rules are being put in place.

According to the prefecture's natural green resources division, in January 2019 a foreign man and woman were ordered to clean up an area after they were found near the park's "horse's back" dune, which had been used as a canvas to draw "Happy Birthday Natalie" across it. The graffiti was large, measuring 5 meters high by 25 meters wide. On April 3, the name "SEBASTiAN," accompanied by a drawing of a face, was discovered on the dunes' western side. It was cleaned up by prefectural government officials.

The Tottori Sand Dunes make up part of the Saninkaigan National Park spanning Kyoto, Hyogo and Tottori Prefectures. As such, they fall under the Natural Parks Act's rules forbidding changes being made to the landscape. However, officials say it is difficult to interpret the law as banning graffiti.

In 2007, graffiti left at the site by university students caused a stir on the internet, leading Tottori Prefecture to introduce its own "ordinance to protect and rear Japan's Tottori Sand Dunes initiative." Under the terms, acts including graffiti, littering and setting off fireworks at the site are prohibited, with violators facing fines.

The Japan Tourism Agency's survey on overnight stays in Japan estimated that the number of visitors using accommodation in Tottori Prefecture totaled approximately 2.38 million in 2009. By 2018 it had increased 30% to about 3.29 million. In 2009, only 14,000 of those visitors were from abroad. But their share has increased rapidly, with 47,000 foreign tourists in 2013 and 184,000 in 2018. Figures are not collected on the portion of visitors who go to the sand dunes, but officials on the ground say it's risen considerably. "The proportion of foreign visitors has gone from about 20% a decade ago to around 50% now," they said.

The area appears to have experienced a recent surge in foreign interest due to the dunes' "fumon" wave patterned vistas, which are considered highly instagrammable. It's also the home prefecture of Gosho Aoyama, creator of the internationally popular manga and anime "Detective Conan."

To improve foreign tourists' understanding of the rules, signs in English, Chinese and Korean have been set up at the sand dunes' five entrances. But a dearth of employees skilled in foreign languages means any explanations inside the park are done largely through exchanging gestures. Tomihisa Ikeuchi, of the prefectural government's natural green resources division, spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun. "We are concerned about whether the rules are fully understood, but we want to continue to protect views of the beautiful sand dunes."

(Japanese original by Hitoshi Sonobe, Tottori Bureau)

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