Julian Gray, Director of the SWCPA visits the Michinoku Coastal Trail in Japan to learn how hiking trails can help heal communities.
I’ve recently returned from a trip to Japan where I was honoured to be a member of an international delegation from the World Trails Network reviewing the development of trails in Miyagi Prefecture as part of a World Trails Festival.
It was encouraging to see the Japanese trail managers and wider stakeholders identifying the value of walking and the development of trails for economic development through sustainable tourism. What was also very inspiring from the Festival was seeing how trails can be a strong catalyst for improving individual’s and communities’ health and wellbeing. The area we visited includes a coastline devastated by the 2011 tsunami.
The Michinoku Coastal Trail, is Japan’s newest 1,000km hiking trail in the Tohoku region. The trail is of similar length to the South West Coast Path and traverses the coastline in the northeast of Japan’s main island, Honshu. The new Trail offers a lifeline to some coastal communities where houses are still being rebuilt and local businesses are looking to tourism to support livelihoods. Individuals and groups impacted by the tsunami are also using the trail to help move forward and recover.
So, are there lessons to be learned looking back to the South West of England? Firstly, we’re incredibly lucky living and working in the South West surrounded by wonderful landscapes and an amazing coastline. This is especially poignant in 2019 as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the legislation which created our National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Trails.
As Britain’s longest National Trail, the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path wraps its way around the region connecting people to, and through, these outstanding landscapes. Over 70% of the Path is itself within National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Not to forget the other regional, national and international designations around the coast of the South West including 2 World Heritage Sites, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and Geopark, 5 RAMSAR sites, 7 Special Protection Areas; 13 Marine Conservation Zones; 8 Special Areas of Conservation; and over 50 Local and National Nature Reserves – all recognising what a special pace this is.
Research over the past decade has estimated the economic benefit of the South West Coast Path – bringing in over £530 million to the local visitor economy and supporting 11,000 jobs. In 2018, the Coast Path, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the South West received a special Outstanding Contribution award in Tourism Excellence Awards – which is fantastic recognition from the tourism sector of the value of this amazing natural capital to the region.
Our experience of the countryside inspires future generations and underpins the emotional drivers behind tourism – we want to share the wonderful summer holidays on the coast we had as children with the next generations. So, by protecting and promoting the Coast Path we’re also helping support the future pipeline for tourism businesses in the region.
The individual health benefits of walking – both mental and physical – are now well documented. The success of Raynor Winn’s book the Salt Path show’s that her story of the transformative impact walking the trail resonates in a society which is often disconnected from the natural environment. We’re currently building a body of data and research which helps quantify these benefits to society. Through the Connecting Actively with Nature Project the Association has run a series of pilot projects over the year to identify barriers to access, so we can help address inequity in access to our environment. In addition, we’re looking to commission research in the new year to estimate the economic value of walking the Coast Path in deferred health costs to society – more on both of these initiatives in a future blog piece.
The challenge for the Coast Path and wider National Trails family is to ensure we continue to deliver our important role in connecting people to, and with, these amazing places.