A Japanese town has a creative plan to lure millennials from the city and back to the country

Rural tourism can help form a sense of identity for locals and visitors alike.
Rural tourism can help form a sense of identity for locals and visitors alike.
Image: Unsplash/Luke Pamer
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We have become a culture of nomads. “Where do you come from?” is a question we now routinely ask one another because we rarely expect the answer to be “here.” Discovering where someone comes from tells us about who they are and what their story is—but we never ask, “When are you going back?”

We assume we must leave where we come from to discover who we are. That’s because place is profoundly linked to our sense of self. It may not be at the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, but pride in where we come from is at the root of our sense of belonging.

Instead of sticking around the areas of their provenance, young people are flocking to big cities, and rural communities are becoming de facto care homes for the elderly. In 2010, 8% of the world’s population was 65 or over, a percentage that is set to double by 2050. Many seniors are also staying in rural areas while the young leave them to migrate to bigger opportunities presented to them in the big smoke. Our global urban-dwelling population is projected to be around 70% by 2050, many of them millennials. 

Japan is the most extreme example of this phenomena, with 27% of the population aged 65+ and an urban population of almost 55%. Prime minister Shinzo Abe’s government has implemented various incentives to encourage young people to procreate and populate rural areas, but the top-down approach isn’t changing trends fast enough. Instead, small-scale, community-driven projects are having the best results. These local initiatives tackle the issues while creating social and economic opportunities at the same time–a classic case of “solving for pattern,” as Wendell Berry outlined in his 1981 essay of the same title.

In these models, the answer for slowing the streams of youth fleeing farming areas for the cities lies in tourism. People crave a sense of belonging—and instead of looking for it in our places of origin, we often travel to find it. In last year’s ITB travel and tourism trend report, some of the key trends identified in millennial traveler habits were the hunger to experience authentic culture, encounter different ways of living, and engage with local people.

Yoshino is an industrial riverside town in the Nara prefecture that attracts hoards of tourists for one month each year who take selfies in front of its legendary cherry blossoms. But outside of blossom season, it’s rapidly becoming a ghost town. With a population of around 7,000, there are just 10 children in the local kindergarten, and an estimated 200 people leave each year for the city.

The Yoshino Cedar House is a new project initiated by Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia. It is a two-story cedar cabin with guest accommodation on the second floor and a room on the ground floor that doubles as kitchen/dining areas for guests and a community gathering space for locals. A designated group of elders runs the operation, hosting guests and introducing them to the wealth of surrounding culture and the cast of local characters, such as forest walks with “the guardian of the forest,” sake distilling, chopstick manufacturing, and sushi-making classes with the local chef. All the profits feed back into the community.

On the surface, a steady flow of tourists keeps small businesses alive and sparks employment opportunities. But aside from the small-scale economic injection for the elderly and potential for teenagers to become tour guides, the added boon is that younger residents see the fascination that outsiders find in the place where they come from; it provides an opportunity for the locals to tell the particular story of Yoshino, and in so doing fosters a sense of pride in place.

Another example of this kind of pride-inducing initiative is taking place on Fogo Island off the Newfoundland coast of Canada. The issue of youth migration from Fogo Island was drastically accelerated when the Canadian government introduced a moratorium on cod fishing in 1992, which decimated the island’s principal industry, economy, and esteem overnight.

To counter this, local returnee Zita Cobb opened the Fogo Island Inn in 2013. The 29-room hotel, perched on the weather-beaten rocks overlooking the Labrador Sea is a lifeline for the dwindling island population. The inn is part of Cobb’s Shorefast Foundation initiative, which provides seed funding for small businesses and intends to inspire young islanders to stick around and keep local culture alive for future generations.

Cobb built her inn with the islanders using local skills, materials, and crafts to fundamentally tells the story of the culture of Fogo. The inn employs around 150 people—a significant chunk of the 2,400 people who live there—and the experience is entirely geared to opening up the powerful sense of place. From berry picking to iceberg spotting, quilt making to punt racing, here is an experience that celebrates island community culture in all its living, breathing, idiosyncratic charm. Cobb has now put the island on the map as an extraordinary destination, shoring up the pride of the islanders as a result.

Rural tourism does more than reveal quaint ways of living for travelers to post on Instagram. In locals telling the stories of who they are and showing where and how they live to others, they forge they own identity and deepen their feeling of belonging.