The central government has given Kenting’s only airport one final chance to prove its viability.
The best beaches on the island of Taiwan are in Kenting National Park, an isolated nook of the Hengchun Peninsula near the country’s southernmost point. To get there from Taipei requires a two-hour journey on the high-speed rail to Kaohsiung, followed by a 2 to 2.5-hour taxi ride or a three-hour bus trip.
The length of the trip to Kenting has long been a deterrent to its tourism business, with domestic tourists often opting instead for the bucolic Penghu islands, a mere 50-60 minute flight from anywhere in Taiwan. Venturing farther afield, one can reach Japan’s Okinawa islands in about 100 minutes by air.
With an eye to raising Kenting’s profile, in the early 2000s the Pingtung County government persuaded the central government to allow it to build an airport that would cut travel time from Taipei to Kenting to about an hour. In theory, the idea was sterling. If the journey was a breeze, who would be able to resist Kenting’s rustic tropical charms?
There was just one problem overlooked by planners: Powerful downslope winds lash the Hengchun Peninsula from October to April, making it next to impossible for seven months of the year to land the light aircraft that Kenting’s Hengchun Airport can accommodate. Hengchun’s location – near the ocean and surrounded by mountains – means the airport cannot be expanded to accommodate larger jets able to navigate the heavy winds.
As a result, arrival numbers at the Hengchun Airport fell from 23,000 in 2004 (its first year of operation) to 11,000 in 2006 and just 2,448 by 2011, according to the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA). No flight arrivals have been recorded at Hengchun Airport since September 2014.
Industry observers had expected the central government to turn Hengchun Airport over to the military, yet in December the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) announced a CAA plan to bring international charter flights to the airport for a two-year trial period. Under the scheme, Kaohsiung International Airport would deploy workers to Hengchun Airport to handle work related to international flights, such as customs, immigration, quarantine, and security matters.
The CAA plan is based on a proposal by the Pingtung County government. “The Hengchun Airport exists because the local government wanted an airport, so they are clearly going to oppose efforts to close it,” says Hwang Tay-lin, associate professor of aviation and maritime management at Chang Jung Christian University.
At the same time, he explains, the airport is hemorrhaging cash. Although no flights have arrived at or departed from the airport in two-and-a-half years, “people are still going to work every day,” Huang says. Annual losses from the airport’s operations come to some NT$60 million (US$1.9 million, according to the CAA.
According to recent posts on Hengchun Airport’s Facebook page, the airport is hosting educational activities. An April 11 post shows photos of students from the Affiliated Hospitality Senior High School of National Kaohsiung University of Hospitality and Tourism visiting the airport. A March 30 post shows pictures from a visit by a local kindergarten. When contacted for comment, officials at Hengchun Airport referred Taiwan Business TOPICS to the CAA.
To improve usage of the airport, the CAA has adopted a number of measures, says CAA Director-general Lin Kuo-shian. These include allowing cyclists to use parts of the terminal space to rest, encouraging visits such as those shown on the airport’s Facebook page, leasing airport space or facilities for filming, and permitting ultra-light aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to use the airport.
With regards to Hengchun’s future, “the opinions of the local government play an important role,” Lin says. “We respect the planning strategy organized by the Pingtung County government. Developing international charter flights will be the short-term strategy in 2017 and 2018.”
That strategy just might work, given Taiwan’s ascendance as a top tourist destination in Asia. A record 10.7 million tourists visited last year, up 2.4% year-on-year, according to data compiled by the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics.
In an interview with Taiwan Business TOPICS, Daniel Schroeter, a Hong Kong resident who has visited Kenting twice previously, indicated strong interest in potential charter flights. “Of course I would take a charter flight,” says Schroeter, who last visited Kenting in February with his wife and daughter. “They love the food on Kenting’s main street and with convenient travel options we would go more often.”
He cited reckless driving by a local taxi on the return to Kaohsiung from Kenting as further reason to open direct Kenting-Hong Kong flights. “There were seven passengers crammed into this absolute jalopy, and the guy was driving like his house was on fire,” Schroeter says. “We didn’t feel very safe.”