Japan’s return to whaling could hurt growing whale-watching business: tour operators

Japan’s thriving whale watching industry faces upset following the country’s resumption of commercial whaling after a 31-year ban, according to tour group operators.

Tokyo withdrew from the International Whaling Commission and began whaling in its coastal waters (up to 22km from land) on July 1, in a controversial move that has sparked criticism from activists and anti-whaling countries.

Japan’s return to commercial whaling comes at a time when the whale-watching business is gaining traction; whale-watching in Okinawa pictured

The move is at odds with Japan’s whale-watching industry, which is estimated to have grown 20 per cent annually since it began in the 1980s, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). In 2015, whale watching across the country generated US$8 million, of which 20 per cent came from overseas visitors, including corporate incentive groups.

Tour operators fear that Japan’s resumption of commercial whaling threatens not only the whale watching industry but also wider tourism in departure ports.

Tomoyo Yamada of South to South in Okinawa’s Urasoe City told TTG Asia that any drop in group numbers would adversely impact tourism in the city.

“Whale watching is a winter activity so marine tourism operators here rely on it during the off season,” he said.

Similarly, tour operators in Rausu, a fishing village on the island of Hokkaido, fear that the move will hurt business, at a time when the whale watching business is beginning to gain traction and business from overseas groups for the town’s five operators is growing year on year.

Masato Hasegawa, captain of Shiretoko Nature Cruise, told TTG Asia that 10 per cent of his bookings hail from overseas groups from Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Hawaii and Germany, but he fears for the future.

“I am worried about the reaction of customers who are sensitive to whaling. We expect that the number of reservations from current groups will fall, particularly those from Europe and the US,” Hasegawa said.

He added that it is “necessary to train English-speaking staff to respond effectively to questions about Japan’s commercial whaling from overseas customers in the future”.

Patrick Ramage, IFAW’s director of marine conservation, said: “Coastal whaling threatens to kill the geese that literally lay the golden eggs. (Japan’s commercial whaling) puts Japanese whalers on a collision course with their country’s economic interests and committed businesspeople in coastal communities who are benefiting from this new relationship with whales.”

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