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  • Samantha Lees

How Tourism Is Conserving The Wondrous Forests of Yanbaru (Sustainable Tourism Series)

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

Those who are well-traveled or well-informed will know that Japan is a country blessed with abundant nature, has a long and fascinating anthropological history and houses some of the most advanced infrastructure in the world.

On one hand, tourists often flock to a handful of well-known pockets of Japan, while many other areas - in particular the rural regions - are suffering from the effects of depopulation resulting in decline and abandonment.

Believing that tourism still has great potential to be a driver for positive change, we are dedicated to challenging the status quo, and crafting sustainable journeys that are better for people, for businesses and for the planet.

In our treasure trove of all the wonderful places to visit and things to do in Japan, we have a few favorites that we think speak for the benefits of sustainable tourism in different ways: from environmental conservation to bringing socio-economic value, preserving cultural heritage to empowering local communities.

In this article, we’ll give you a glimpse of one of the most naturally beautiful places in Japan and discover how tourism can help advance its conservation efforts.

Let the sights and sounds of Yanbaru’s nature be a source of relaxation and groundedness

In light of a new Expedia survey showing that “81% of travelers are considering a trip to a remote area, mountain, or small town in the next 18 months”, we are starting the series off with somewhere off the beaten track: Yanbaru in Okinawa.

At the mention of Okinawa, most will picture pristine beaches and manicured resorts. But for those seeking somewhere a bit off the beaten path and a refreshing alternative, Yanbaru ought to be on any nature-lover’s travel list.

Just 90 minutes’ drive from Naha, the Yanbaru region in the northern part of the Okinawa Main Island is home to the country’s largest subtropical evergreen forest, one of only a few in the world. The unique ecosystem of Yanbaru forest, dubbed the “Wondrous Forest”, is a precious habitat for a multitude of rare and endemic flora and fauna. The region was very recently (July 2021) added to the UNESCO Natural World Heritage list for its incredible ecosystem and the importance of protecting its varied biodiversity.

The people of Yanbaru work tirelessly to maintain traditions as well as their natural environment. One of the area’s most culturally significant and spectacular events is Shioya Bay’s “Ungami” in Ogimi Village, a 500-year-old festival of thanksgiving for the harvest and invokes the deities to bless the coming year. In the same village, Hentona High School (the only high school in the region) is one of the few in Japan to have "Environmental Studies" as a subject. Students learn about their local natural environment, go on field trips to observe wildlife, and get involved with real conservation efforts in collaboration with local NPOs, such as transplanting coral or tree-planting to prevent soil run-off into rivers and oceans. And in Higashi Village, the rise in visitor numbers in the region in recent years have resulted in local tour guides working with the authorities to expand areas to take visitors to, in order to prevent over-tourism in concentrated areas.

Yanbaru is a stunning playground for exploring and discovering the abundance of nature's delights with a local council-approved guide all year round: Kayak through the calm cool rivers of the mangrove forest, while your guide identifies bird calls and points out passing animal life. Get adventurous and go on an exhilarating canyoning tour jumping off waterfalls and swimming in crystal clear rock pools surrounded by lush green forest. Venture into the forest in the moonlight on a guided night walk to discover the fascinating, nocturnal life forms that thrive in the night time. And to fuel all that activity, savor the region’s unique food culture centered on fresh local produce by local people, while listening to stories from locals about Yanbaru being a place of abundant resources, and a home to spirits and many sacred sites.

How does tourism help environmental conservation?

Visiting nature serves to raise awareness and appreciation among tourists of its intrinsic value, thereby creating a desire to help protect the natural environment and biodiversity. Tourism also enhances the protection and preservation of these notoriously fragile ecosystems by funding conservation work such as patrolling for poachers and removal of harmful invasive species. These efforts and national parks create local employment and generate income for local communities to improve living standards. Tourists can learn about how different communities care for their environment, and be inspired to find ways to support conservative efforts in their own countries.

As visitors, we can help by being mindful of our impact when we visit these precious places of nature, taking nothing except memories and photographs, leaving nothing behind but footprints that will wash away (see the Leave No Trace Principles). Being able to visit these places of stunning natural beauty should not be taken for granted. In Yanbaru, rules and protection measures have been put in place by local communities to preserve their natural surroundings, and obeying them not only helps to preserve them, but also helps to instill trust between locals and visitors.

// Read our previous blog post on Top 11 Tips for Sustainable Business Travel

We’ll be introducing more destinations like this - ones that aren’t only fascinating for travelers, but serve a purpose for the greater good, so stay tuned.


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