When most people think of sand dunes, they think of the Sahara or possibly the Arabian Desert; Denmark and Japan typically aren’t the first locations to come to mind. Yet both countries have impressive expanses of sand that they’re turning into an economic asset.
Denmark has the Rabjerg Mile, a migrating dune on the coast. It’s usually about 130 feet high and moves as much as 60 feet a year; it and similar sand drifts have swallowed the occasional building over the centuries. In the 1800s, the government bought up most of these dunes and planted them with grasses and other vegetation to stabilize them, but left this one as an example. It attracts a quarter of a million visitors a year.
In Japan, about 10 miles of isolated coastal dunes—in Tottori, on the country’s west coast—are part of a national park and have also become somewhat of a tourist destination. Visitors can climb the dunes, which are as high as 165 feet, or go sandboarding (think of a snowboard, but on sand) or paragliding.
Efforts have long been underway to preserve the dunes, which are eroding on the coastal side. Dredged sand from a nearby port is deposited a third of a mile offshore in the hopes that it will replenish the dunes. Unlike the dunes of Denmark, many of which were planted with grass, Tottori’s dunes are carefully cleared of weeds and grass by local volunteers to preserve their shifting, ephemeral nature.
Tottori’s most unusual attraction is an indoor sand museum, where every year artists come, by invitation, from around the world. They sculpt elaborate scenes in sand—in all, about 3,000 tons of it—centered around a given theme or location. In 2017, for example, the theme was the United States, and sculptures included the New York skyline, Mount Rushmore, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the California gold rush.
Ironically, although the museum is located amid the dunes, the artists can’t use the dunes’ sand for their sculptures because it belongs to the national park and is in a protected area. Instead, the museum has stockpiled fine-grained sand from a roadway excavation project that took place about 10 years ago. The sand is saved inside a 21,000-square-foot indoor space and reused each year. The sculptures remain in place for eight months—attracting about half a million visitors each year—and are then leveled with bulldozers.
The Japanese government is trying to attract more foreign visitors to the country—it will host the Olympic Games in 2020—and especially to areas outside major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. It is promoting remote regions such as Tottori. Tourism officials have suggested that to make the sand museum even more of draw, it should forego the bulldozers and let tourists demolish the sculptures at the end of each season.