Taiwan’s Hawaii is in Hot Water

Photo: Matthew Fulco

Kenting’s tourist arrivals have plunged amidst complaints about service quality, prices, and litter.

Kenting is the closest Taiwan gets to a tropical Arcadia. The small seaside town lies in a secluded peninsula near the island’s southernmost point, about 200 kilometers south of the Tropic of Cancer. White-sand beaches abound. The sun blazes, coloring the temperate waters azure, aquamarine, and royal blue. The air is pristine too. Geographic isolation and steady winds protect Kenting (sometimes also spelled Kending) from the smog that often envelops Taiwan’s western half.

Designated as a national park in 1984, Kenting gradually developed a tourism sector over the next two decades. Visitors were nearly all domestic. Development was haphazard but small-scale, preserving the area’s rustic splendor.

Kenting’s tourism market came alive a decade ago, buoyed by a confluence of factors. The arrival of high-speed rail to Kaohsiung in 2007 nearly halved travel time from northern Taiwan to 4-1/2 hours. Secondly, the hit Taiwanese film Cape No. 7, shot on location, attracted a wave of Hong Kong tourists. And most importantly, in 2011 the Ma Ying-jeou administration eased restrictions on individual Chinese visitors to Taiwan.

The deluge of visitors overwhelmed Kenting, leading to widespread complaints among locals about litter and overcrowding. Yet many local residents smelled opportunity. Throngs of unlicensed food vendors appeared on Kenting Street, home of the popular local night market, and beaches. Rows of look-alike bed and breakfasts – many operated by hospitality neophytes – sprang up across the Heng-chun Peninsula.

Prices soared, culminating in public outrage earlier this year after an irate tourist wrote on Facebook that he was charged NT$920 for a plate of snacks at the night market – thrice the going rate in Taipei. Once the post went viral, the national Taiwanese media descended on Kenting. The erstwhile halcyon beach community was in ruin, they declared. The Hawaii of Taiwan now looked more like the Jersey Shore.

To be sure, tourism numbers are steadily falling. Kenting National Park recorded 4.3 million arrivals last year, an almost 50% decline from 8.16 million in 2014. Through February this year, about, 571,000 people visited Kenting, compared to 645,000 during the same period the year before and 1.2 million in the first two months of 2016.

“I was expecting it to be more like a beach in Thailand,” says Derrick Chang, a Hong Kong-based public-school teacher who visited two years ago. “But the beach wasn’t that nice. There were heaps of people. The food stunk. There were touts all over the place.”

Reviews on Facebook are even harsher. “The beach looks like a junkyard,” wrote Facebook user Wu Sn Lon in a May post on the official account of Kenting National Park, lamenting the omnipresent heaps of rubbish. “Are you sure this is a national park? You’re going to make us a laughing-stock with foreign visitors.”

In a June post on the park’s Facebook account, user Claude Lin criticized Kenting’s excessive commercialization. “Why should vendors be able to take over the beach in a national park?” he wrote.

Service woes

When I visited Kenting in May, I did see some trash on the beach, but few vendors. Better enforcement of littering violations would improve the situation. But that still wouldn’t resolve the fundamental problem. With the exception of Kenting Street, eateries are limited. As a result, beachgoers often buy instant noodles or a lunchbox from a convenience store and eat on the street or at the beach. Rubbish bins are limited, so only the more conscientious visitors pack up their trash and take it home.

Meanwhile, restaurants can be a bit expensive considering the no-frills setting – cheap patio furniture, poor ventilation, and a piece of paper on a clipboard as the menu – and minimal service. A meal consisting of cold sliced beef (a tough cut), stir-fried vegetables, and a small bowl of spicy noodles was about NT$300.

More disappointing was the quality of service in my hotel. While the room was spacious, well-appointed, and offered a pristine ocean view, the property’s staff lacked rudimentary hospitality skills. I had to ask them to clean the room; they grudgingly accommodated my requests for breakfast (such as scrambled eggs), and most oddly, the owner’s elderly father sat in the tiny lobby for long periods, sometimes staring at guests. I learned his identity after asking one of the staff members why he had been sitting there all day.

On the day of my departure, the sole front-desk staff member on duty was ill, and while coughing continuously – into her palms and the air – offered to bring my luggage to the taxi. I said I would handle it myself.

That hotel cost about NT$4,000 a night, upper mid-range for Kenting. For that price, the service should have been better, says Leo Ko, a Hengchun native and owner of the Seawall bed and breakfast, which has been in operation since 2001. “The problem is that a lot of people with no hospitality experience jumped on the bed-and-breakfast bandwagon after individual mainland tourists were permitted to visit Taiwan,” he says. “They don’t know the first thing about running a B&B.”

When demand peaked between 2013 and 2014, a slew of people rushed to build properties, Ko says. By the time construction was finished, tourist arrivals had already started to decline. “Taiwanese always are eager to make a fast buck by investing in something that’s a proven success,” he says. “They don’t always think about how excess supply affects profitability.” Still, Ko expects that Kenting’s tourism market will recover as supply decreases. “Hotels will close when the owners see that the business isn’t so easy,” he says. “It’s already happening. The strong will survive.”

The Sail Rock, a famous landmark in Kenting National Park. Photo: Matthew Fulco

Peter Frauchiger, a 40-year veteran of the hospitality industry who works as the culinary director at Kenting’s Chateau Beach Resort, says that lax local licensing requirements have exasperated room oversupply. “In Kenting, you just need a building with four to fifteen rooms to call yourself a B&B [above 15 rooms is considered a hotel], but some of them don’t offer breakfast and other services associated with B&Bs,” he says. “Everybody can sell rooms here.”

Frauchiger’s girlfriend owns La Fleur, a B&B in Hengchun Old Town. With a restaurant on the first floor, the property is one of just a few Kenting B&Bs that serve breakfast a la carte. By definition, “a bed and ‘breakfast’ should include a proper breakfast,” he says.

Worth the trek?

Kenting has always attracted local tourists who want a tropical beach vacation without having to travel abroad. That isn’t likely to change, even as business slows. Chinese tourists continue to visit in large numbers as well.

Vivi Wei, an art teacher from Jiangsu Province who visited Kenting in May, told Taiwan Business TOPICS that she had a pleasant trip. “My favorite parts of the trip were the delicious local food and how friendly everyone was,” she says. “I would definitely come back.”

She did say that it would be more convenient to travel to Kenting if Hengchun Airport were operational. That would eliminate the two-hour car (or three-hour bus) ride from the Kaohsiung HSR station. Unfortunately, because of strong downslope winds, it is often unsafe to fly light aircraft in Kenting – the only type the airport can accommodate. Since the winds can be unpredictable, there’s no easy fix to the problem.

Given the hassle, why then bother to visit Kenting? Go to experience Taiwan at the apex of its maritime splendor. The seascapes are lovely and the ocean is placid and warm, making it ideal for water activities. Sure, the east coast is more visually stunning, but you often can’t go in the water.

At Hualien’s Qixingtan Beach, there is a “No Swimming” sign describing the number of recent drownings there. Not the ideal vacation destination. Indeed, on my last visit to Hualien, I stood on the beach and took photos. In contrast, on my Kenting trip, I swam, kayaked, and snorkeled.

Snorkeling in Kenting lets one appreciate the wonders of the sea, says Oasis You, a water-sports instructor and lifeguard based in Hengchun County. “Like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Okinawa, and Boracay, Kenting has many types of brilliantly colored tropical fish and coral species,” he says. “It’s a fantastic feeling to see all that sea life up close.”

Unlike Hualien’s Qixingtan Beach, Kenting offers several water sports including kayaking and snorkeling. Photo: Matthew Fulco

In addition to water sports, Kenting offers equestrian experiences for tourists. At first blush, it seems a bit strange. Horses are, after all, more suited to land travel than sea. But Hengchun County has ample wide-open space. There is plenty of land for a horse farm or two – and accompanying trails for riders.

I discovered the Kenting Equestrian Resort Village on the website of travel-activity provider KKDay, and decided to book a one-hour horse-riding experience. I hadn’t been on horseback since summer camp in 1992, but once I was back in the saddle, I felt like I had never left.

That’s because the Kenting Equestrian Village trains its equines well, says manager Casper Yuan. “Here we train horses to be ridden, rather than training people to ride horses,” he says. “We want beginners to be able to enjoy the experience.”

That’s not to say it’s as easy as driving a car with automatic transmission. The trail we took passed through a large pond, deep enough that the tips of our shoes in the stirrups nearly grazed the water’s surface. My horse Flower also stopped several times to snack on vegetation. It took some persistent gentle prodding to get her moving again.

“You need to treat your horse well, but also show that you’re in charge,” Yuan says. “If you’re anxious and unsure of yourself, the horse will know it, and take that as a sign to do what it wants.”

The Kenting Equestrian Resort Village in Hengchun County offers horseback riding for tourists. Photo: Matthew Fulco

The agreeable service I received in the activities I did in Kenting contrasted with the hotel and barebones dining options. That’s probably because water sports and equestrian instructors can’t open a business without first establishing expertise in their fields. Their primary assets are not physical property, but their knowledge and teaching ability.

To become a better holiday destination, Kenting will need to professionalize its accommodations and restaurants. The town needs more career hospitality professionals and fewer opportunists.

Says the Chateau Beach Resorts’s Frauchiger: “The hospitality industry is about passion for service. Either you have it or you don’t.”