By using tactics and technology to avoid overcrowding at popular destinations and involving the input and expertise of local communities, Taiwan can begin to distribute tourist dollars more evenly.
The problem exists wherever tourism is a significant industry. During peak seasons, popular destinations look like they might buckle under the weight of visitors. At other times, businesses struggle to cover their costs. Often, just down the road, there is a community that attracts few outsiders but sorely needs the jobs and dollars that tourism can generate.
Tourism may be even more feast-or-famine in Taiwan than most other places, and employment norms are a likely factor, says Michael McCreesh, a Canadian who teaches tourism at Ming Chuan University.
“People here don’t get much paid vacation, so whenever there’s a national holiday, it seems like half the population hits the road,” he says. When travel planning is dominated by these public holidays, such as the seven vacation days that followed the 2021 Lunar New Year, bottlenecks are inevitable, he explains.
In countries where employees enjoy greater flexibility, citizens are more likely to spend long holiday weekends at home. They might then take a subsequent Monday off, so as to travel when prices are lower and scenic spots less crowded, says McCreesh, who in addition to his position at Ming Chuan is studying for a Ph.D. in recreational ecology at National Taiwan University.
The issue of overcrowding at attractions rematerialized in the second half of 2020 after public discussion of the problem died down following Beijing’s decision to sharply curtail Chinese group tours to Taiwan a year earlier. Unable to go overseas because of the pandemic, domestic travelers clogged the eastern half of the island.
Locations that previously saw few visitors found themselves inundated. For example, the rice terraces at Xinshe in Hualien County are a great backdrop for photos, but farmers there complained of crops being trampled and tourists spraying themselves with DEET-based insect repellent while standing on land set aside for organic agriculture.
The UN-affiliated World Tourism Organization defines “tourism carrying capacity” as “the maximum number of people that may visit a tourist destination at the same time without causing destruction of the physical, economic and sociocultural environment and an unacceptable decrease in the quality of visitors’ satisfaction.”
When discussing carrying capacity, McCreesh specifically includes the impact tourism has on local residents. He says that since visiting Houtong, a tiny ex-mining community in New Taipei famous for its cat population, he has wondered how the people who live there feel about having so many strangers close to – and sometimes on – their property, “especially on weekends, which should be their downtime.”
One way to reduce the pressure on hotspots like Houtong is to encourage sightseers to go elsewhere. While the Tourism Bureau itself does not have a specific rebalancing policy, the 13 national scenic area administrations it oversees often promote little-known attractions within their areas.
In the opinion of this writer, who has been traveling and writing about tourism in Taiwan for 25 years, the Alishan National Scenic Area Administration can take some credit for the development of tourism beyond the forest recreation area, the narrow-gauge railway, and Fenqihu.
Taiwan’s national parks often take action to reduce over-tourism. For part of the 2021 Lunar New Year holidays, the road through Taroko Gorge was closed to private vehicles between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. The only exceptions were tour buses that had received permission in advance and tourists with hotel bookings inside the restricted area. Sightseers were encouraged to use the free shuttle buses that connected Xincheng Railway Station (just outside the park) with spots like Buluowan and Tianxiang.
McCreesh says technologies deployed by the authorities to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 superspreader event could also be used to prevent overcrowding at tourist destinations.
During the 2021 Lunar New Year period, AI analyzed data gathered by traffic cameras near 20 scenic spots in Taoyuan and sent out “yellow warnings” to alert the public that certain places were getting crowded. The system was also designed to respond to dangerous concentrations of people by issuing “red warnings” that would have closed parking lots.
Of course, insisting that all visitors book well ahead – which is what people wanting to trek to the main peak of Yushan, Taiwan’s highest mountain, have had to do for years – will take some of the spontaneity out of travel. “There’d be no more ‘wake up in the morning, feel like a hike,’” says McCreesh. “But this could be where we’re going, given the pressures we put on these places.”
Sharply increasing admission and parking fees “can be an effective method to manage numbers,” McCreesh agrees. “But there needs to be a strategic plan. Reducing visitor numbers at one place can increase them at another, which may have a lower carrying capacity. If people want to get outside, they’re going to go somewhere.”
In spring 2015, the authorities faced this exact dilemma when weighing whether, and by how much, to hike parking and admission charges at Eluanbi and Maobitou in Kenting National Park. According to reports in Liberty Times, some warned that if tour operators decided that stopping at those two points had become too expensive, Chinese tour groups would instead descend en masse on Longpan Park, where an increase in visitor numbers could damage the grassland and cliffs ecosystems.
The Kaohsiung model
Every city and county government in Taiwan has a tourism unit, and some of these are trying hard to remold outsiders’ perceptions.
Kaohsiung, for instance, is often bypassed by tourists – but the Tourism Bureau of Kaohsiung City Government (TBKCG) is determined to change this. Responding to Taiwan Business TOPICS by email, TBKCG noted that the muni-cipality’s transformation from a center of heavy industry into a modern and livable city is still underway, but stressed Kaohsiung’s multiple attractions, including high mountains and other natural scenery, appealing oceanfront, and diverse population.
“Each of Kaohsiung’s 38 districts has distinct commercial and cultural characteristics, and annual festivals enhance the visibility of these characteristics,” says TBKCG. “Activities designed to help tourists access local communities and experience residents’ daily lives make travel more pleasurable and meaningful, thereby increasing tourists’ willingness to return.”
Jiaxian, Taoyuan, and Namasia are inland districts of Kaohsiung far removed from the city’s urban core. In all three, tourism has the potential to be a vital supplement to earnings from agriculture.
The Jiaxian Taro and Bamboo Shoot Festival markets various locally grown foods. Like the better known Malahodaigian (Deer Ear Shooting Festival) of the Bunun people, the Miatungusu (Ceremony of the Sacred Shells) – an age-old harvest-and-peace ritual held by Taoyuan District’s Hla’alua indigenous community – has begun to attract curious outsiders. Namasia’s April-May Firefly Watching Season is now a major ecotourism attraction.
“I think the Kaohsiung City government has worked quite hard over the years to boost the city’s standing as a tourist destination,” says Carl Thelin, an American who runs A Touch of Zen Guest House with his wife, Yueh Shu-wen, in the city’s Zuoying District. “But they have a significant challenge in overcoming Kaohsiung’s longstanding image of being an industrial hellhole people want to skip on their way to Kenting or Xiaoliuqiu.”
Political turmoil surrounding the shock victory in Kaohsiung’s 2018 mayoral election of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate Han Kuo-yu, and his subsequent recall, has frustrated officials’ best intentions, says Thelin.
In spring 2020, Thelin and Yueh joined a six-week training program for B&B operators that was rolled out by the central government as part of a pandemic economic-relief package.
Thelin, who says he is one of very few non-Taiwanese to go through the program, especially enjoyed its field trips to seldom-visited attractions. “The idea was that if we innkeepers visited these places ourselves, we could share our experiences with our guests and be instrumental in boosting the profile of some deserving but under-visited destinations,” he says. “To me, this was a stroke of genius, creating greater synergy between guesthouses and tourist sights.”
The program also sent B&B owners on a three-day trip to Changhua County, a destination chosen “because it’s seen as a model of how to develop a previously little-noticed area into a significant tourist draw,” Thelin says. “Lukang has long been a tourist magnet, but what was interesting was the way the local authorities have been able to develop enough attractions in downtown Changhua and nearby rural areas to induce tourists interested in Lukang to extend their stay by a day or two to take in some of these other sites.”
According to Jeanette Yi-Jen Shie, an assistant professor at National Kaohsiung University of Science and Technology, red tape has made it difficult for some communities to develop hospitality and tourism programs in a way that ensures profits go into local pockets.
“If [grassroots organizations like community development associations] don’t hold a travel-agency license, they may be accused of running an illegal tourism business,” says Shie, who has been conducting research in indigenous communities in Kaohsiung and Pingtung since 2006.
“In underprivileged communities, many issues need to be addressed. Tourism should be community-centered, instead of tourist-centered,” Shie says. “However, it requires a great deal of wisdom and skill to balance tourism with local empowerment.”
Some progress has occurred on the regulatory front. In late 2020, the minimum amount of paid-in capital for Class-B travel agencies (which can offer domestic tours to residents of Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Macau, but not to foreign visitors) was reduced from NT$3 million (US$108,000) to NT$1.2 million (US$43,000).
Shie believes this threshold is still too high, explaining that “for many small community groups, tourism isn’t usually their core objective, just one approach they might try to boost local wellbeing.”
In a 2015 paper, Lai Leang-yang, a professor of indigenous studies at National Dong Hwa University in Hualien, highlighted Danaiku Nature Ecological Park near Alishan, Dongyuan Wetland in Pingtung County’s Mudan Township, and Smangus in Hsinchu County’s Jianshi Township as among the few indigenous communities that have developed lucrative tourism industries without compromising their “rights to self-dignity and self-interpretation.”
McCreesh regards the Amis Music Festival, five editions of which were held in Taitung County’s Dulan Township between 2013 and 2019, as a successful response by one community to its marginalization.
In the past couple of decades, Dulan has been transformed by artists, entrepreneurs, and other outsiders. To some extent, this influx has sidelined the area’s indigenous Amis inhabitants. However, “the festival has given the Amis a stake in the tourism industry by making tribal culture a draw,” says McCreesh. “This has empowered the community and made them central to discussions of how tourism can be developed.”
Calling for a fundamental rethink, McCreesh says: “We need to readjust the equation of tourism. The idea that we need to demonstrate growth by recording ever-increasing visitor numbers simply isn’t sustainable.”