Blazing a trail

Having established the Unesco-listed Kumano Kodo pilgrimage site as an exemplar of responsible travel, this Canadian is now applying his expertise to regions and industries further afield.

  • Location: Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture
  • Hometown: Manitoba, Canada
  • Job: International tourism promotion and development director, Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau

For more than 1,000 years people have ventured into the mountains of the Kii Peninsula to pray at the three Grand Shrines of Kumano. The significance of this network of pilgrimage routes known as the Kumano Kodo, together with its sacred sites, was recognised with Unesco World Heritage status in 2004. The global attention that comes with this prestigious accolade can present challenges for regional destinations but when the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau formed in 2006, Brad Towle seized on the chance to help develop Kumano Kodo as a prime destination for responsible travel.

Having first experienced the wonders of Kumano Kodo in the late 1990s, Towle took a hands-on approach to building infrastructure. Trails were mapped, marked and maintained, while workshops educated businesses on catering to travellers’ needs. As the number of foreign visitors increased, the bureau launched new services to meet their requirements, including a travel agency and series of guide books. A partnership was also formed with another Unesco pilgrimage route, northern Spain’s Camino de Santiago, to develop a dual pilgrim programme that has now been completed by more than 3,000 people.

Despite the area’s growth in popularity as a destination, Towle is focused on creating a resilient model that enables the community to take responsibility for the tourism industry. “If we’re going to make a sustainable destination, everybody has to be involved,” he says. “Not just the local people and the government – the visitors are a big part too.” One element of the bureau’s approach is education, which plays a key role in raising awareness of the trail’s culture and heritage, creating the foundation for responsible travel and preservation initiatives.

Building upon their experiences, Towle and his team are using the trail’s popularity to connect responsible travellers with industries such as agriculture. They are also involved with the development of routes in neighbouring prefectures Nara and Mie.

Takijiri-oji shrine, one of the three Grand Shrines of Kumano. Brad Towle of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau advocates for responsible travel along the network of pilgrimage routes.

The Kumano Kodo trail. People have been visiting there for 1,000 years, and it is maintained and preserved thanks to educational initiatives targeted towards local businesses and visitors.