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Entry tax eyed for popular western Japan island Miyajima amid surge in visitors

Itsukushima Shrine is pictured in the Hiroshima Prefecture city of Hatsukaichi. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)
Itsukushima Shrine is crowded with tourists on the island of Miyajima in the Hiroshima Prefecture city of Hatsukaichi in this photo taken on Dec. 18, 2019. (Mainichi/Isamu Gaari)

HIROSHIMA -- The city of Hatsukaichi in the western Japan prefecture of Hiroshima is considering imposing an "island entry tax" on people who travel to Miyajima, the location of the popular Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The city is mulling collecting the tax, which would be set at around 100 yen per person, from 2021. It would be collected primarily by tacking it onto ferry ticket fares. The plan comes as the city struggles to secure financial resources to maintain the local environment amid a surge in the number of visitors to the island, famous for the shrine's "floating" torii gate.

However, as "overtourism" has arisen as an issue, questions have lingered over whether or not to tax residents of the island, who previously resisted a similar tax proposal that was subsequently abandoned. It thus remains to be seen whether the plan can be implemented.

According to the Miyajima Tourist Association, the island saw 4,657,343 visitors in 2019. This is 1.6 times the number who reached its shores in 1996, when the shrine complex was inscribed on the World Heritage list. The increase is attributed mainly to a rise in the number of foreign visitors. However, as most visitors travel there on day trips, tax revenue obtained from the amounts they spend on meals and souvenirs does not greatly boost the city's financial resources, officials say.

In fiscal 2019, the city poured 900 million yen into a passenger terminal for visitors arriving on the island, but one local official lamented, "We won't be able to keep up our facilities to match the needs of ever-increasing visitors in the future."

The city previously considered introducing an island tax in 2008 and 2015 to shore up its financial resources, but island residents strongly resisted a blanket tax, and the plan was put on hold. However, responding to the surge in visitors has now become an urgent task for the city.

The new tax is expected to bring in revenue of about 400 million yen a year. A panel of experts set up last summer agreed in December to add the tax to ferry fares. Tourists who travel to the island on private boats would be charged when they use the pier. Over a five-year period from fiscal 2021, the city hopes to set aside about 1.5 billion yen from the new tax, which will be put toward protecting the environment and preserving cultural resources.

Such island taxes, which are not legally defined, can be imposed by local bodies through ordinances, but consent from the central government is required. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications' Local Tax Bureau, however, has expressed reluctance to agree to a tax targeting a specific group of people.

Miyajima is located only about 1.7 kilometers from the Japanese mainland, and quite a few residents travel between the island and Japan's main island of Honshu. The one-way adult fare for a trip on a ferry operated by West Japan Rail Miyajima Ferry Corp., which takes roughly 10 minutes, currently costs 180 yen.

To avoid targeting a specific group of people, the island is considering imposing the tax on everyone including residents, but it is also mulling providing a ferry subsidy to island residents as a measure against depopulation.

As of Jan. 1, 2020, the island's population stood at 1,560 people, roughly 60% of what it was in 1996.

"It's vital to secure the financial resources to prepare for the needs of tourists while protecting Miyajima island," said Hatsukaichi Mayor Taro Matsumoto.

Island taxes have been imposed in some other areas in Japan. The four villages of Izena, Iheya, Tokashiki and Zamami in Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa impose similar taxes on people who visit the main islands of these municipalities. The taxes are set at 100 yen in principle.

But unlike Miyajima, these islands are far away from Okinawa's main island, and it was judged that residents would not frequently depart from and return to the islands, meaning they would not face a heavy burden from the tax. Revenue from the tax on people arriving in Tokashiki island stands at about 14 million yen per year.

(Japanese original by Isamu Gaari, Hiroshima Bureau)

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