Japan: Ogasawara Islands to be next UNESCO site?

With access limited to a chartered ship which sets sail once every six days or so, the Ogasawara Islands (小笠原諸島) are assuredly among the least accessible parts of Tokyo (where prefectural governing responsibility officially lies)! Home to a number of endemic species of wildlife and unique geological features, the islands were placed on a provisional list registered with UNESCO by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment as a potential Natural World Heritage Site on January 30, 2007, and along with the historical assets of the town of Hiraizumi (en/ja) were officially submitted as candidates on January 18, 2010.

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The Ogasawara Natural Information Centre (en/ja) is a Ministry of the Environment hub site which provides a great deal of information about the process up until this point, detailed future plans, as well as raw natural data. A quick look (ja) leads one to feel things are moving right on schedule!

A post on the official blog (ja) of the Ogasawara Tourist Association reflects the excitement:


The Ogasawara Islands have now been put forward as a Natural World Heritage candidate site!
With our sights set on World Heritage Site selection, over the next few years our efforts will be put toward dealing with issues such as the problem of the introduction of non-native species to this sensitive ecosystem.
Should the islands be selected, it will be Japan's fourth Natural World Heritage site.

They also have some excellent site promotion emblems uploaded via the above blog post.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is UNESCO's environmental advisory body, carried out their inspection (ja) of the actual state of several of the islands between July 2 – 15, (ja) said to be among the most important elements of the evaluation process. The decision is slated to be made in summer 2011 at the World Heritage Committee's 35th assembly.

Let's take a quick look at exactly what this detailed inspection entails. According to the Ministry of the Environment:


The investigation will be carried out by the World Heritage Committee's advisory organization, The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as an element of the evaluation process to be added to the Heritage sites list. The primary objectives of this evaluation are as follows:
– To establish an understanding of the candidate site from all possible angles.
– To investigate the actual boundaries of the candidate site.
– To evaluate the management system of the site, as well as the effectiveness of said system.
– To investigate present and future threats to the candidate site.
– To evaluate the regional support being offered to the candidate site's recommendation.

So, how did it go? Of course it will be some time before any results are made clear, but it sounds like the islanders put every effort forward in order to ensure a smooth investigation. From one of the region's major blogs:


IUCN's Peter and Naomi arrived on the islands on July 4, and departed after completing their 10-day on-site inspection. Thanks very much to everyone who was involved.
The day prior, IUCN made a presentation to our related organizations, and a wide variety of proposals and relevant examples were raised with regards to island administration from here on out. There was also discussion of tourism; even if the islands become a natural heritage site, I would like to plan for the advancement of eco-tourism here, to ensure their proper management of is carried out.
Anyways, after that a Goodbye Party was held, at which each of our organizations made their final appeal (if you can call it that). Then the village really whooped it up. The “Ogasawara Natural Heritage Site March” made its informal national debut. It seemed to go over well, so perhaps that racked up a few more points for us… (though no one's thinking we'll be selected *just* by a good march). Looking to this year's bon-odori [summer dance] meet (August 12-14) we're hoping to see some dance competition, so it's assuredly an event to look forward to.
Ogasawara Islands

Bonin Islands, Japan (from Flickr user *yasuhiro – CC-BY)

The islands are in both a promising as well as challenging position. With increased attention through the UNESCO connection, the potential for increased funding and preservation of various natural properties is becoming more and more viable. Yet a great deal of the organizations putting efforts toward maintaining the islands still remains self-funded, largely from tourism. Assuredly being named a World Heritage Site would boost numbers dramatically, but the fundamental infrastructure to move people to these islands is lacking, and may be holding back potential tourists even now. Let's take a look at a couple blog posts which humorously (but accurately) look at this issue.

Via Left Eye, the blog of a photographer based on the Ogasawara islands.





One major difference between the islands and Okinawa is their being true “islands of the sea.” In other words, the islands have at no point been connected to a larger land mass. If I try to explain what this difference actually entails, this post will get too long so I'll be sure to blog about it before too long.

Besides that there's one more major difference compared with Okinawa, and that is the number of tourists. It's said there are roughly 200-300,000 visitors to Okinawa annually. Ogasawara's figures sit at around 20,000… that's looking like less than the number of visitors to a quasi-public theme park in the red!

A 25 hour trip by boat.
Minimum stay of six days.
On the expensive side at that. (Sea-bound trips generally are)

These three factors can be seen as the islands’ three main hurdles.

From a travel and tourism blog:


At one point or another I received an email asking how to get to Chichijima. The route to Chichijima? Alrighty. It's quite simple. Get together your luggage, and head to Hamamatsu [in Tokyo]. Talk to the station attendant, and ask “I'm looking to get to Takeshiba Pier… how might I go about getting there?” That port is about a ten-minute walk away. At the port, purchase a ticket, and upon boarding a boat called Ogasawara-maru, you'll be on your way to Chichijima. The ticket price is a bit more than 20,000yen. Best bring 30,000. That's one-way of course. Don't forget the ship runs only once every six days in summer and at New Year's. At other times of the year it drops to once every 2 weeks. As such you're going to have to look up the boat's schedule ahead of time. If you search for Ogasawara-maru (小笠原丸), the time chart should be the first result to pop up. The boat leaves the pier at 10am. As well, if you're shipping luggage you'll need to send it well ahead of time or it won't be sent on the same boat as you. Even if it is, packages aren't delivered on the day they arrive on the island. It would be wise to have them shipped on the ship departing previous to the one you'll ride.

Finally, a blog update from Ogasawara's parliamentary representative, Shigeo Ichiki, who succinctly puts forward the issues facing villagers at this point in time:


On August 5, I paid a visit to the Nature Conservation Society of Japan (NACS-J), located in Tokyo's Kayaba-cho. We managed to have some comprehensive discussions where advice was passed my way regarding the administration of the islands’ environmental preservation activities, including such issues as the use of imported lumber in power generation, source of funds should the islands be named a World Heritage site, plus of course the need for environmental support funding (such as an island entrance tax) which I am always advocating. We also discussed airline routes to the islands.
Since coming to the islands I have had dealings with this society (NACS-J), namely in the form of carrying out any number of inspections during my time with the Ogasawara Whale Watching Association. We're always able to have a frank and honest discussion, which allows for a truly meaningful exchange of opinions.

Ichiki's blog post was made just this past Saturday, so I think it accurately reflects what is on the mind of islanders these days (or at least islander politicians). An island entrance tax will assuredly be a controversial issue, as depending on the cost it could further dull the islands’ appeal to tourists, but apart from that the tourism industry on the island simply does not yet have the scale to sustain the natural conservation activities they are trying to carry out. It will be an interesting issue to follow into next year.

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