In 2009, Hokkaido University’s Imai Nobuharu wrote a detailed paper discussing the ins and outs of anime tourism and how it might be tied in with traditional cultural events. It’s a good paper, near as I can tell, and it goes in some interesting directions, breaking out statistics, comparing and contrasting the Washinomiya shrine and Disneyland, and exploring the terminology which has developed around anime tourism.
The whole paper is extremely long and translating all of it would take a good chunk of time, but my eyes were drawn to a particular footnote on page 14, which discusses 1990s examples of pre-modern anime-driven tourism and the etymology of the term 聖地巡礼 (Seichi Jyunrei, or Holy Land Pilgrimage in English) which has come to refer to otaku tourism.
Source Paper: http://eprints.lib.hokudai.ac.jp/dspace/handle/2115/35681
I cannot conclusively say here when the term “Seichi Jyunrei”, for visiting locations shown in anime, was first used. However, the actual practice of visiting locations shown in anime was acknowledged in the early 1990s, when Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon (manga serialized from 1991-1996, anime aired from 1992-1997) was at the peak of its popularity. For example, there were “serious fans who hung out at places that appeared in the manga”, and during the serialization, the author Takeuchi Naoko spoke of how “the wooden plaques at the shrines were full of Sailor Moon. When it got to New Year’s you actually saw people walking around in costume.” Nihon Keizai Shinbun (1995.10.2)
Also, the practice of travelling to the locations of Kuwabara Mizuna’s series Honoo no Mirage (1990-2004, 40 volumes in total, Cobalt Bunko) was named a “Mirage Kikou”, and the volumes “‘Honoo no Mirage’ Kikou” (1994), “Mirage Photo Kikou – East Japan Chapter – Touring Through Honoo no Mirage” (1998), “Mirage Photo Kikou – West Japan Chapter – Touring Through Honoo no Mirage” (2001) were published and received with considerable popularity. A central setting in the story, the Yamagata prefecture’s Yonezawa Uesugi festival, was visited by many fans of the female-targeted work.
If I were to speculate as to how “Seichi Jyunrei” came to be used in the sense discussed here, the game “Sentimental Graffiti” and its anime adaptation “Sentimental Journey” stand out. Just as the anime’s fan book carries the subtitle “A Tale of 12 Cities, 12 Girls”, the theme of the work is experiencing chance meetings with 12 girls who live in 12 major Japanese cities. And as this work became a hit, I can confirm that, at least in the second half of 1999, there were those who imitated the protagonist’s travels through 12 cities to meet girls, and called their travels a “Senti-Jyunrei”. This “Senti-Jyunrei” combination of a shortened title, “Senti”, and the “Jyunrei” meaning to “tour each location”, can be understood as a play on the existing idiom of “Seichi Jyunrei”. If one wishes to inquire as to when “Seichi Jyunrei” came to be used in its present form, this should serve as a reference point.